The Keystone XL Pipeline: A Tar Sands Folly?

Hillary Clinton is in the tar sands hot seat. Is she asking the right questions?

The U.S. State Department is in the rare position of having to decide on an environmental issue. TransCanada wants to expand an existing pipeline to bring tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. Because it's an international project, the State Department must review and approve it, a process expected to be completed by year's end but that could be extended to complete a "thorough review process."

The review process requires, among other things, "disclosure of potential environmental impacts (beneficial and adverse) and the consideration of possible alternatives." So far, two environmental impact drafts have been prepared -- the latest released on April 15. Both have been roundly criticized [pdf] by the Environmental Protection Agency for not adequately assessing oil spill risks and potential alternate pipeline routes. Until this is done, the agency warns that it will characterize the project with "environmental objections -- insufficient information."

Meanwhile, some in the House, in hopes of increasing the likelihood of a green light from the State Department, are throwing their weight behind a measure, to be voted on Tuesday, to cut off the pipeline's environmental review by November 1 ($ub req'ed).

The Keystone Scoop

The story starts with western Canada's tar sands -- also known colloquially as oil sands. The stuff is a far cry from what we normally think of as oil. First, the bitumen -- a heavy viscous, tar-like hydrocarbon locked up in these deposits -- is extracted. If mined, it's separated from mining clay and sand, then "upgraded" and diluted so it can "flow" like oil.

Tar sand oil generally receives a low rating among environmentalists for energy sources.

  • It's among the dirtiest of petroleum fuels when it comes to greenhouse gases; and
  • Bitumen extraction is energy- and water-intensive.

In fact, bitumen extraction has significantly degraded Canada's boreal forests and created vast wastelands of tailing ponds that have been linked to river contamination. (See here and here.)

But Canada's got lots of tar sands and we need lots of oil, so there's strong desire to move the stuff to American refineries and ultimately into our cars. How? In a word, Keystone.

The Keystone XL represents the final two phases of a $13 billion, 3,800-mile pipeline system owned and operated by TransCanada. (See map and description.) Its proposed U.S. path would enter Montana and cut across South Dakota and Nebraska before joining with Phase II in Steel City, Kansas -- crossing some of our wildest and most productive lands, including our agricultural heartland and the Ogallala Aquifer, which supports a huge part of our nation's breadbasket.

And there's the rub for the environmental community -- concerns that pipeline leaks and spills will damage these unique and valuable resources have sparked opposition. The New York Times has called the project "the wrong pipeline for the wrong oil." And EPA, as noted above, has "environmental objections."

Now, one would like to think that with all the precautions we take, oil and gas pipeline leaks and spills would be rare, quite small or quickly contained. In reality, they do occur without such qualifiers. Does the Yellowstone River ring a bell? And then there are these from the past year, not in any way an exhaustive list:

As for TransCanada's Keystone system, since May 2010, it's had 12 leaks -- mostly from pumping stations and mostly minor except for the one that spilled hundreds of barrels (see here and here).

And sending bitumen down a pipeline is especially problematic and damaging -- it's a more acidic form of petroleum that requires more heat and pressure than conventional oil (which increase pipeline stress) to keep it moving.

So objections to the project are not without merit.

But on the other side folks like the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, citing national security and economic issues, maintain that Keystone XL would "reduce U.S. reliance on oil from dictatorships" and create jobs.

And here's where I start to scratch my head. I fully appreciate the need to make our nation less dependent on oil from anti-American interests. But why do we need Keystone XL to do this?

Canada's tar sand oil is already getting here. Just look at TransCanada's interactive map again.

The pipeline's Phase I, which opened in June 2010, zigzags across 1,853 miles, cutting eastward across Canada then south into North Dakota. through Steele City, Kansas, and then east into Illinois. Phase II, which opened February 2011, extended the pipeline from Steele City south in a straight shot to a major pipeline hub in Oklahoma fairly close to Texas refineries. Keystone XL (Phases III and IV) would make the path less circuitous, connecting the tar sand oil to Texas refineries, but it's not necessary to move tar sand oil into the country. Just look at the map here.

An analysis [pdf] prepared for the Energy Department last December found that Keystone XL's capacity would not be needed until sometime after 2020 at the earliest and maybe not until after 2030.

So I have to ask: Why this pipeline? Why now? And is Secretary Clinton asking these same questions?

Crossposted with National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge Blog and The Nicholas School's