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UPDATE: The Argument Against Oil Sands Development

By Sustainability Office on August 29, 2013
By Jack Eiel

By Jack Eiel ’15


The Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and 13 partner groups have just released a report that settles the issue unequivocally: Keystone XL would be a climate disaster.  Therefore, due to the reasoning in my original article, President Obama should “shred” the permit and put an end to the Keystone XL Pipeline once and for all.


Shaking my typical morning grogginess off, I rose early and put on my best attire. Wearing warm colors, I made my way downstairs to where everyone was already bustling about. You see, every year my family hosts Easter at our home just outside of Philadelphia. All of my siblings, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and cousins were there. We had a small breakfast of crispy bacon, scrambled eggs, and strawberry scones and afterwards, made our way outside into the crisp, March morning. We were all in good cheer; the older members of the family were sitting, drinking, and conversing, while the young ones ran rampant through the yard searching for eggs. It was a lovely day and I took a moment to appreciate how privileged I was.

Others on this day were not so fortunate. Two days earlier the Pegasus pipeline burst near the outskirts of Mayflower, Arkansas, a suburban neighborhood, spilling over five thousand barrels of oil onto the streets, the surrounding environment, and residents’ backyards. Two-dozen homes were evacuated, while Exxon Mobile began to contain and clean up what was being categorized as a “massive spill.” Leaving many families homeless and without a place to celebrate Easter. I felt a pang of sorrow for these families’ misfortune and put them in my prayers. After the celebration was over and my family had left, I began researching the spill.

The heavy crude oil spill permeated through the news for weeks to come and has continued to be cited as a reason for halting further oil infrastructure growth, but why? The oil that spilled wasn’t any ordinary oil, it was diluted bitumen and it currently poses one of the largest threats to the long-term health and well-being of our planet.

The diluted bitumen that was flowing through the Pegasus pipeline is a crude substance that originated from the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Oil sands are a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water. When extracted and refined, the crude bitumen can be transformed into diesel fuel—however, due to the extremely viscous nature of the oil sands, oil companies will dilute the material with natural gas condensate (NGC). The diluent allows the heavy crude to flow freely through the pipeline. Unfortunately, the diluted bitumen poses a huge threat to the environment in two fashions. The first is the difficulty that arises when trying to clean it up from an inevitable spill. The second comes from the high carbon emissions inherent in the production and refinement of the oil sands.

When flowing through the pipeline, the crude bitumen and the NGC remain in solution with each other. But when the pipe breaks, such as it did in Mayflower, the diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is exposed to a whole new environment. And in that environment, bad things start to happen.

When the dilbit makes its way to a body of water the heavy crude and light diluents separate. The lighter NGC tends to evaporate, while the heavy crude sinks. This type of spill is fundamentally different than a spill of light crude oil, a substance that sits on the surface and can be siphoned out of waterways. I would hope that I don’t have to point out the dangers of having massive amounts of heavy crude oil sinking into water systems. Yet as satirical TV host Stephen Colbert says, “Out of sight, out of mind, and into the drinking supply.”

Besides the added risk from oil spills, heavy crude is also much more energy intensive than light crude. For example, the energy ratio of a typical barrel of light crude is 1:25 (one unit of energy as an input to produce 25 units of energy as an output). On the contrary, the energy ratio for heavy crude (such as the tar sands) is around 1:5 for surface mining and 1:2.9 for underground mining. Of course, as the energy ratio shrinks, the amount of atmospheric carbon pollution increases, not only from burning the heavy crude, but also simply from the process of removing that heavy crude from the ground. With the gargantuan amount of potential oil resting in the Athabasca oil sands, the emission heavy extraction process could spell “game over” for combating global climate change.

More specifically, it is estimated that the Alberta oil sands hold more than 142 billion barrels of oil, which is touted as the third highest reserve of oil in the world behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Only 8% of which can be surface mined. Which means that 130 billion barrels of oil will be mined at the excruciatingly low energy ratio of 1:2.9. The terrible energy investment is as strong an argument as any, but truth be told, it’s not the worst of it. Unfortunately, the Alberta oil sands are located directly beneath the Alberta boreal forest: a rich ecosystem, full of plants, animals, and insects. Moreover, the trees themselves store carbon that is released on a huge scale when these forests are destroyed. Oil companies have already begun to degrade this lush habitat, but extensive damage has been put on hold while the corporations attempt to circumnavigate the various roadblocks between them and further oil sands development. Numerous protests, in both the United States and Canada, have helped stifle the issue for the time being, yet oil sands development is still seriously discussed.

Back in September of 2008, TransCanada, a Canadian oil corporation, proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL) as a way to transport Alberta’s oil sands to Steele City, Nebraska. When the heavy crude reached Steele City it would use existing infrastructure to travel to Gulf Coast refineries. With no other viable options to bring Alberta’s vast oil sands to market, the Keystone XL pipeline has become the high-ground in the battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists.

In the four plus years since TransCanada proposed the Keystone XL pipeline, there has been constant opposition to the project. From simple letters and speeches made at public hearings back in 2008, to the “biggest climate rally by far in the history of the U.S.,” being held outside of the White House in 2013. In fact, last February about 20 Colgate students traveled to Washinton D.C. and attended the high profile event. Furthermore, The Sierra Club, 350.org, and Friends of the Earth (three prominent environmentalist groups) all oppose the construction of the pipeline.

Oil refineries along the Gulf Coast have put their support behind KXL. Some believe that refining the diluted bitumen on US soil will decrease our dependence on foreign oil, yet this is not the case.

To say that KXL will reduce our reliance on foreign oil is naive. If the crude oil were being refined and sold back to the States that would indeed be a powerful argument. But Valero, a refinery on the Gulf Coast who’s prepared to purchase 20% of the pipeline’s capacity, is located in a Foreign Trade Zone, meaning they can export the refined diesel fuel to the much larger and more lucrative foreign markets without being taxed.

The influx of relatively cheap diesel fuel onto the international market may serve to lower global diesel fuel prices, but will have little effect on gas prices. Furthermore, since a majority of Americans don’t rely on diesel fuel, this is a moot point. KXL will not change the amount of oil that will need to be imported to the US and it won’t positively affect how much it costs to fill up your tank.

Nevertheless, TransCanada has continued to pursue its project. One of their main talking points has been jobs. TransCanada and their associates have bragged that this transcontinental pipeline will create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. However, according to the U.S. Department of State construction of the pipeline will result in 3,900 direct jobs. That is 3,900 who will actually be working on the pipeline. The numbers tend to become vague and ill-founded when TransCanada starts postulating about “spin-off” jobs. The figure for these job reaches up to 40,000, including jobs such as hotel and restaurant employment to accommodate the influx of construction workers in certain areas. However, after two short years, when KXL is complete and fully operational, TransCanada only predicts 35 permanent jobs to watch over the mammoth pipeline.

Many have argued that even those 3,900 jobs are a crucial jumpstart that our economy needs. They say that some jobs are better than no jobs. Yet the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), in perhaps the most powerful public statement I have read, essentially deny that argument. Their August 2011 statement reads:

“We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil. There is no shortage of water and sewage pipelines that need to be fixed or replaced, bridges and tunnels that are in need of emergency repair, transportation infrastructure that needs to be renewed and developed. Many jobs could also be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation—jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.”

In three short sentences, the ATU and TWU lay out the visionary groundwork for the future of America. We must begin to focus on new forms of energy. We can no longer remain stuck in the dangerous, oil reliant ways of the past.

Due to KXL’s transcontinental route, TransCanada has submitted a permit request form to President Obama and are eagerly awaiting him to sign the pipeline project into reality. If the President were to approve this project, he would need to find that construction of the KXL pipeline is in the “national interest.”

For a President who is very clear on his vision of a more renewable and sustainable power grid, it would seem ludicrous for him to find such a carbon intensive, green house gas emitting quagmire in the nation’s best interest. As I type this, the permit sits on the President’s desk waiting to be signed or shredded. If you feel as I feel, if you want a future with clean air and water, if you want to avoid catastrophic climate change, then go to 350.org and sign their petition against TransCanada’s KXL project. The President is rumored to make a decision on KXL by fall 2013, but until that day comes, we should all fight for the future of our planet and oppose the Keystone XL pipeline—it’s as simple as signing your name.

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