Tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada, contain a reserve of 175 billion barrels of retrievable oil, making it the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. TransCanada, a Canadian gas and oil company, has proposed the construction of a pipeline called the Keystone XL that will transport the heavy crude oil over 1,700 miles from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. The construction is a $7 billion completion of the company’s existing Keystone Pipeline that will allow for stalled oil in Cushing, Okla., to flow south to be sold. The current Keystone Pipeline carries half a million barrels of oil a day, but its planned expansion would increase oil production to over 900,000 barrels a day. The Consumer Energy Alliance along with twenty-five other organizations in support of the Keystone XL project report submitting more than 450,000 comments from Americans calling on the U.S Department of State to allow construction of the pipeline on American soil. While proponents of the pipeline cite many potential benefits, other Americans oppose the Keystone XL, saying that TransCanada’s extortion of Alberta’s dirty tar sands threatens human health and the future of the environment.
Science of Tar Sands Extraction
Tar sands, also called oil sands, are known as a dirty form of oil because of the extensive carbon-producing process that it must undergo before it can be used for fuel. Tar sands are made up of mixtures of sand, clay, water and a heavy, carbon rich form of natural oil called bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, black and tarry substance very resistant to flow. After it is extracted, it needs to be broken up extensively before being put into a pipeline.
Oil sands extraction incorporates conventional methods like mining at depths above 80 meters and non-conventional methods also called in-situ methods, at even greater depths. Drillable methods account for 80 percent of the oil sand recovery under the surface. After extraction, the tar sands are mixed with hot water and a caustic chemical, sodium hydroxide, to separate the bitumen from the clay and sand. Further processing gets rid of residual water and small solids from the mix leaving behind just the bitumen, which is thicker than crude oil. The cracking process, also known as upgrading, heats the bitumen up in a big vertical column and injects chemicals at various levels to split its carbon chain and allow hydrogen to attach to it, making it more mobile. The more the molecule is cracked, the closer it gets to being fuel that would be used in a car as gasoline. After upgrading, the bitumen becomes a synthetic crude oil that can be placed in the pipeline to travel to the refinery.
The in-situ methods use thermal stimulation to remove the bitumen from the sand while it is still in place. This is done at depths where drilling is not feasible. Cyclic Steam Stimulation and Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage are in-situ methods that inject steam directly into the sands to heat it and make the bitumen less viscous so that it can flow out like conventional crude oil. TransCanada uses the water flowing from the Athabasca River for their in-situ methods because regulations prevent them from mining the water from the water table.
These extraction methods emit three times more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude oil production and require three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced, totaling up to 400 million gallons of water a day. The mining methods also scar the landscape and leave behind tailing ponds, which are filled with bitumen and clay residues and pose environmental problems for human sanitation and migratory bird life. The project also poses risks for indigenous people living downstream from the tar sands and may be linked to increased cases of cancer, renal failure, lupus and hyperthyroidism among their population.
Along with risks to human health, many people are concerned with risks to wild life and natural resources. Construction requires cutting down 740,000 acres of Canada’s pristine boreal forest, which is a part of the world’s largest carbon storehouse. Mining would endanger the forest’s wildlife and release harmful greenhouse gases. The pipeline would also cross over the Ogallala Aquifer which supplies 30 percent of the ground water used in American agriculture and 80 percent of the drinking water in the surrounding eight states. Spills are particularly risky, because once tar sands oil is upgraded to the point where it can actually be put into a pipe; it comes like liquid sandpaper and is highly corrosive. Many citizens are concerned at the possible threat that a spill in the pipeline would have on their water supply.
Pipeline spills are a serious cause for concern among opponents of the Keystone XL. In 2010, US pipeline ruptures and explosions killed 22 people, spewed over 170,000 barrels of crude oil into the environment and cost 1 billion dollars’ worth of damage. Earlier this year, the first leg of TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline gushed 21,000 gallons of tar sands oil in southeastern North Dakota. This was the pipeline’s twelfth spill within a year of its construction, although the other spills were on a much smaller scale. But these problems have prompted TransCanada to use stricter regulations with its Keystone XL, stating that it will be the safest crude oil pipeline built in the U.S.
“If it gets approved, the Keystone XL will mark the beginning of a new era of how we cross environmentally sensitive areas and how we install and maintain these pipe systems,” said Michal Moore, senior fellow and professor of energy economics at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and visiting lecturer at Cornell. Along with adhering to stricter regulations, the TransCanada Company will be incorporating cleaning robots called pipeline inspection gauges or “smart PIGs” that monitor the pipe’s condition.
“The PIGs are a remote vehicle that they can send down the pipe with a lot of telemetry. It will literally run down the length of the pipe and perform diagnostic tests on metal integrity and joints, and in some cases even do remote repairs,” Moore said.
According to TransCanada, their pipeline will help create jobs, stimulate the American economy with cheap fuel prices and reduce American dependency on Middle Eastern oil. TransCanada reports that construction of their pipeline will create 20,000 manufacturing and construction jobs which they project will increase the personal income of American workers by $6.5 billion. They also state that the project will generate more than $585 million in new taxes for the states along the pipeline’s route. An independent study by The Perryman Group even estimated that the Keystone expansion would stimulate more than $20 billion towards the US economy and create indirect jobs totaling over 119,000 person-years.
But the Cornell Global Labor Institute conducted its own study titled Pipe Dreams' Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost by the Construction of Keystone XL, which investigated the job claims made by TransCanada Corporation and the Perryman Group. Their findings report that the Keystone XL project will actually have minimal benefits on the American economy and job prospects. “The number of jobs being projected for this project is relatively small,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Cornell ILR Global Labor Institute. “Right now the U.S. unemployment rate is at 9.1 percent. Our calculations show that if you hired everybody who you expected to hire in year one of the project –– both direct and indirect employment –– the U.S. unemployment rate would still be 9.1 percent. So this is not a game changer in terms of unemployment.”
Their analysis also points out the flaws in the Perryman Group study stating that it does not accurately report how it reached its job claim calculations and that its estimate of 119,000 indirect jobs has not been substantiated, putting their own estimate at a much lower 5,000 to 9,000 jobs. The report also shows that the actual building process is not economically in America’s best interests as much as TransCanada had previously said. The study states that the company will spend only $3 to $4 billion in the U.S., not the $7 billion that it had claimed in its Presidential Permit Application. That extra money will be spent on the Canadian portion of the pipeline and on previous construction phases, they reported.
Environmental Impacts and Activism
Some Americans oppose the Keystone XL, citing TransCanada’s extortion of Alberta’s dirty tar sands threatens human health and the future of the environment as large risks.
Environmentalists argue carbon pollution will sky rocket if the pipeline is built and the jobs created are not worth the hazards towards the climate and human health. They say that replacing the currently used crude oil refineries with tar sands oil brought by the pipeline will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 38 million tons per year, equivalent to carbon pollution from 6 million cars; a change that they say our climate cannot handle.
“We’ve got the science here showing what’s wrong with the pipeline, but for that science to matter, we need to have regulations that understand the science and politicians who are willing to take into account what the facts say,” said student activist Jesse Reed Steberger ’12, interdisciplinary studies.
In September, he was arrested outside of the White House for protesting against the Keystone XL pipeline with ten other Cornell students. He joined the over 1,200 other activists from the Tar Sands Action to be arrested for their civil disobedience over the course of 15 days. “President Obama isn’t faced with the question of creating more jobs or protecting the environment” said Steberger, “He is presented with what choice to make for our future. Is he going to support big corporations and the economy that has been spiraling downward? Or is he going to move the United States into a new clean energy future that’s going to lead to American prosperity and an economic recovery?”
Steberger along with 4,000 other environmental activists plan to return to the White House fences on Nov. 6, one year before the Election Day, to protest the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
While some welcome the potential job opportunities, lower fuel prices and increased energy security that the construction process might create, others doubt the job creation and fear environmental consequences. The president’s pending decision has split many American citizens based on their opposing views. Despite the debate around its potential benefits and hazards, the Keystone XL project already received approval from Canada’s National Energy Board back in 2010. Its further progression stems on the decision of President Obama to allow or deny construction cross the international borders into the United States.