Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline: Environment be damned

There is a ton of literature and information available about the ecological impacts of tar sands.  These impacts stem from the entire spectrum of the tar sands process--from mining the sand, to extracting the unrefined bitumen oil, transporting the diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), and refining the dilbit to be burned.

First and foremost, a vast expanse of tar sands, the source of the oil that the northern leg of the Keystone XL will be shipping, lies in one of the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystems in the world--the Canadian Boreal Forests.  Currently, trees need to systematically cut down to gain access to the tar sands that lie beneath the ground.  There is a significant amount of greenhouse gas emission that occurs from deforestation.  (It does not really matter what the deforestation is for, greenhouse gases will be released.)  Of the 767 sq. km of forest that has been destroyed over the past few decades, only 104 hectares has been "certified restored," i.e. only 0.13% of the land has been somehow restored to its "original" state, if that is possible.  If the average age of black spruce is 200 years, and the average age of lodgepole pine is 150-200 years, and if it is likely that this is the average age of the trees cut down, how long will it take to actually restore the land the condition it was once in?

Boreal forest against a Suncor surface mine.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

The yellow spots are the largest trucks in the world. 
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Secondly, one the trees are cut, the land below must be industrially excavated and large quantities of water used to extract the bitumen from the sands.  According to the Canada National Energy Board, it takes between 2.5-4 barrels of water to extract one barrel of unrefined synthetic crude oil.  This water is significantly contaminated and the water that isn't recycled is stored in tailing ponds that leak into local water supply.  The Athabasca River is connected to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, one of the world's largest freshwater deltas.  Estimates say that by 2020, around 1 billion cubic meters (the volume of 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or the entire area of around 11 Manhattan islands submerged to a depth of one meter) of toxic water will be stored in tailing ponds by Suncor and Syncrude alone.  

A Suncor facility and tailing ponds alongside the Athabasca River.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

Tailing ponds along side the Athabasca River, seen on the top left.
The Apocalyptic Landscapes of Alberta's Oil Sands, from

What is the potential for contamination and leakage of this water, let alone the fact that this water is essentially permanently toxic?  Fish in Lake Athabasca, near Fort McMurray (an oil boom town), have unusual red spots on them, likely from the pollutants.

"Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta's rivers and lakes." Peter Essick, National Geographic Magazine, 2009

Thirdly, the bitumen is viscous and dense.  To transport it, it must first be diluted with diluents--other petroleum products--and then pumped at high temperatures and pressures.  Dilbit is much more corrosive than other kinds of crude oil, and the likelihood of pipe leaks and eruptions thus increases.  When the leak occurs in water, the diluents separate from the heavier bitumen, and the bitumen sinks to the bottom of the water body.  This is exactly what happened in June 2010, just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred, when an Enbridge-owned pipe erupted and spilled more than a million gallons of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River.  The technology to adeuqately deal with such a spill does not exist.  Four years and a billion dollars later, 40 miles of the Kalamazoo river still remain contaminated.  What might happen if the Keystone XL leaked (and its southern leg Keystone 1 has already...twelve times in its first year...more than any other first-year pipeline in the US) or burst over the Ogallala Aquifer, so important for agriculture and drinking water?

Fourthly, the processing of dilbit creates petroleum coke, or petcoke--a solid byproduct with a high suplur content.  Burning it is illegal in the US because it emits significant amounts of smog-forming sulphur dioxide pollution.  Currently, mounds of petcoke line the banks of the Detroit River and Calumet River and contaminate the air of Detroit and Chicago, or better yet, are shipped to poor places to exacerbate the air there.  "You can't have a picnic outside because you are going to get a mouthful of black dust.  It's so bad we have to power-wash the house every week to wash it off," says Lilly Martin of Mackinaw Avenue in Chicago. The petcoke is this sent to countries even less concerned about environmental issues and public health to be burned.

Next, more about the environmental impacts of the pipeline, specifically on public health and the economics of greenhouse gas emissions.


  1. Josh, any thoughts on this issue?

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