Pipeline Delay: Sustainability Threat from Tar Sands Oil Remains

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Planned expansion of mining the Florida-sized Alberta Boreal Forest for tar sands bitumen crude oil, destroying habitats and indigenous societies, will continue despite the delay in the Keystone XL pipeline.

Climate Tipping Point – The Age of the Oil Sands

Alberta Tar Sands Oil: Game Over for Climate Stability

The Alberta Tar Sands, the largest industrial project in human history, continues to destroy the environment and harm indigenous societies. Its planned expansion of open pit (strip) and in situ (underground) mining of an area of Boreal Forest the size of Florida has set the stage for an epic political battle that will not end despite the Obama Administration decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline.

Nebraska has already moved forward with approving an alternative route with TransCanada to speed the approvals process. As well, the delay renews pressure to complete the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines Project that would flow tar sands oil west across British Columbia to the Pacific Coast, to be shipped to Asia and the rest of the world. Like the Keystone XL, the Enbridge Pipelines will impact sensitive habitats along the route, as well as open channels on the BC coast range to dangerous tanker traffic. This will expose the Great Bear Rainforest, home of the endangered white Kermode spirit bear, to great risks of accidents or spills.

If the British Columbia alternative is constructed, California will be the primary destination for refining the lower-quality heavy bitumen crude that requires intensive processing. Its oil refineries, in the last few years, have undergone upgrades to process heavier crude, and the state’s ports provide an easy gateway to Asia. Top NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen has warned continued tar sands exploitation along with associated pipelines will result in “game over” for global climate stability.

Canada is the number one oil supplier to the US and produces the world’s dirtiest oil from naturally-occurring geologic formations that contain a mixture of water, clay, sand and small amounts of thick heavy oil called crude bitumen. The silty deposits just underground are washed by combining steaming hot water (175 degrees Farenheit) and sometimes caustic soda that separates the globules from the sand. The process requires vast amounts of natural gas and seven gallons of water for every one gallon of oil produced.  Flames from stacks of an “upgrader” crack the tarry bitumen at 900 degrees Fahrenheit and convert it to synthetic crude, sent down pipelines to refineries in Edmonton, Ontario, and the USA.

Settling Ponds can be seen from space and require movement sensor explosions to frighten away wildlife.

Canadian oil sands currently account for more than 1 million barrels/day of U.S. oil imports. The oil produced from oil sands can be refined and used to make asphalt, gasoline, jet fuel and some chemicals. Canada’s vast oil reserves are surpassed only by Saudi Arabia. However, the CEO of Shell Canada, Clive Mather, estimates Canada’s reserves to be 2 trillion barrels (320 km3) or more, essentially 8 times more than Saudi Arabia, banking on technology advances and lax environmental restrictions by Canadian and US governments. Processing and use of tar sands oil produces 2-3x times more GHG per barrel than conventional oil and pollutes hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the Athabasca River. In the process toxic ponds are created so large they can be seen from space. Other issues range from habitat loss, animal fish deformities and increased cancer rates in First Nations people living downstream…to name a few.

Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Delayed, For Now…

Thousands of environmental activists, who circled the White House on November 6th, forced the Obama administration to announce it would review the route of the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline, effectively delaying any decision about its fate until after the 2012 election. Many analysts have posited a thorough re-review will effectively kill the project. Reports show the pipeline company, TransCanada, losing $1 million every day the project is delayed. Yet, Big Oil and their unending machinations, supported by thousands of lobbyists with unlimited campaign contributions, will not be so easily deterred.

LA Activists Say: Stop the Keystone XL!

The State Department said in a statement on November 10 it would order a review of alternate routes for the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which would have been put at risk by a rupture of the pipeline carrying a heavy form of diluted bitumen crude extracted from oil sands formations in Alberta to refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.

Existing tar sands pipelines by Enbridge and TransCanada have already caused 12 spills in the last year. The Department of Transportation Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration has yet to conduct a study of the hazardous qualities of Diluted Bitumen or ”DilBit” because the slurry scheduled to flow through Keystone XL remains incorrectly identified as crude oil. Calling it “synthetic crude” or Syncrude Corporation’s ”Sweet Blend” does not make it any less hazardous.

DilBit is a toxic petroleum slurry principally consisting of bitumen and hydrocarbons like benzene and naphtha. Benzene, naphtha and other hydrocarbons or natural gas condensates have been found to be carcinogenic. This has been understood as early as the 1950s. When heated to 158 degrees Fahrenheit, which results from the pipeline’s having to be pressurized to 1,440 psi, this slurry reveals another potentially dangerous quality: it easily becomes unstable. This resultant instability permits the liquefied hydrocarbons to return to gaseous form. When these “bubbles” implode shortly thereafter, explosive pressure spikes occur that embrittle and eventually rupture any gauge metal used for pipelines.

If explosions occur at time of pipeline rupture, lethal hydrogen sulphide can be released. Bottom line: DilBit pipeline spills are common, as Kalamazoo, Michigan can attest after Enbridge’s tar sands oil pipeline ruptured. It has been reported that the state of Nebraska and TransCanada have already agreed on a re-routing and will conducting their own environmental assessment to augment that of the federal authorities from the US State Department. Though claims are made that the route will skirt the Ogallala Aquifer, this will be impossible. Even if one thought no impacts were likely to groundwater, the pipeline would still cross the Yellowstone, Platt, and Missouri Rivers and hundreds of tributaries. Given the number of people watching this project, we hope that a factual and scientific environmental assessment will be conducted that will reject this unfortunate proposal. Bill McKibben, from 350.org, said,

The president also noted climate change as one of the factors that a new review would need to assess. There’s no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the world’s second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.

And he has made clear that the environmental assessment won’t be carried out by cronies of the pipeline company — that it will be an expert and independent assessment. We will watch that process like hawks, making sure that it doesn’t succumb to more cronyism.
Should President Obama lose the 2012 election however, the pipeline decision would likely go to President Romney (or Gingrich), meaning a quick approval in exchange for the mountains of campaign cash. As it were, the Obama Administration has continued to approve climate-fouling fossil fuel projects throughout his first term, including massive expansion of offshore drilling, coal projects in Wyoming and near Bryce Canyon, failing to regulate coal ash and water use in coal mining, among others. We must act now to stop this whole endeavor now from further threatening our already seriously warming atmosphere.
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Jack Eidt

About Jack Eidt

Writer, urban theorist, and environmental advocate, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion - Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com.