By John Rossi
The U.S. State Department recently produced a draft environmental impact statement which gives a preliminary green light to the construction of a Canada-U.S. pipeline that will complete the link of the tar sands of Alberta to America’s Gulf Coast refineries and port facilities.
After a 45-day public response period, the Department will finalize its impact statement and pass it on to President Obama for his decision to approve or disapprove a permit for the pipeline. The president should not approve the pipeline. The petroleum it will carry is among the dirtiest produced in the world. The pipeline will vastly expand tar sands mining operations that are creating or exacerbating multiple environmental catastrophes. Here’s why.
To understand the environmental problems with the Keystone pipeline, we need to start with the raw material and how it is produced. The Athabasca tar sands in Canada’s Alberta province are the world’s largest and cover an area the equivalent of Florida. These sands contain bitumen, a semi-sold form of petroleum, a tarry-like substance, mixed with sand, clay, and water.
There are two major methods to turn this product in to oil. During the late twentieth century the end product was called “synthetic crude,” because of the huge amount of processing involved.
The main form of processing is mining. The tar sands are dug up in vast open pit mines. The “shallow surface layer,” about 250 feet of water-logged bog-like soil, clay and sand, are scraped off and the bitumen is removed by enormous earth-moving machines. The world’s largest surface mine by area is the Syncrude mine at its Mildred Lake complex. It covers about 33 square miles and is visible from space.
The mined “ore” is crushed and then very hot water is added to help transport it in slurry form to a separator. There, more hot water and chemicals are used to remove the petroleum. The resulting separator output is a mix of bitumen (60 percent), water (30 percent) and solids–mostly sand and clay (10 percent) which must be “cleaned” to remove the non-petroleum parts. Approximately 90 percent of the bitumen is recovered through this process.
The wastewater is sent to tailing lakes. The largest is about 31.5 square miles in size and is one of the world’s biggest man-made structures. It too is visible from space.
In-situ is the other method of bitumen extraction. It requires that wells be drilled through the formation and then steam injected into the wells to melt the bitumen. The resulting hot oil is pumped out. About 60 percent of the bitumen is recovered in this process which is much less destructive than mining.
Whatever method is used, all of this processing takes enormous amounts of energy; about 700 cubic feet of natural gas are used to produce a barrel of oil from bitumen in mining and about 1,200 cubic feet for a barrel of oil from the in situ process. In total the amount of natural gas being used to extract bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands is enough to heat about 3 million homes.
Dr. Marlo Raynolds, senior advisor to the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental research group that supports environmentally responsible development of the Alberta tar sands observes the perverse logic of current tar sands extraction: "What bugs me about oil sands is that it is a resource that is being inefficiently used. We're using natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel, to make a dirtier fuel. It's like using caviar to make fake crabmeat."
Burning all this natural gas means that producing a barrel of oil from bitumen, the Pembina Institute notes, releases over twice as much air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide as extracting a barrel of conventional crude. Greenhouse gas emissions from extraction are between 3.2 and 4.5 times greater per barrel.
Simply put, extracted oil from the Alberta tar sands is one of the most wasteful and environmentally destructive methods of producing petroleum on the planet. And, this is not counting greenhouse gas emissions.
The Keystone pipeline allows an enormous expansion of tar sands oil extraction and vastly increases the scale of environmental devastation. Americans will not allow this kind of environmental ruination in our country and we should not import oil that facilitates it in Canada.
Consequently, President Obama should say no to the Keystone pipeline permit. To do otherwise is morally wrong and hypocritical, particularly from a leader who claims to support clean energy.
This article also appeared in the Harrisburg Patriot-News Online on March 29, 2013
John Rossi is the Climate Change Committee Co-Chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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