The Obama administration contains to wrestle with the issue of approving the Keystone XL pipeline which would transport oil from the huge Alberta oil sands reservoir (it’s oil not tar) to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma and Illinois. The issue is pitting those who are concerned about environmental impact against those who see the benefit of a large new oil supply from our friendly North American neighbor.
Environmentalists contend that production of heavy oil in Alberta and its transport by pipeline risks damaging the environment. Labor unions and the energy industry contend that the whole process is safe, and that the $7 billion dollar pipeline project will create thousands of jobs, boost the economy, and provide a needed source of oil. Emotions are running high, and as usual the truth lies between the two extremes.
The Alberta oil sands originated geologically as an enormous conventional oil reservoir which lacked a capping layer. The oil slowly migrated upward and became mixed with sand and dirt near the surface. In the process, some of the lighter oil compounds either evaporated or were eaten by microbes, leaving behind a heavy oil residue called bitumen. To produce it forest is cleared, the bitumen laden dirt is scooped up by giant shovels, and the bitumen separated from the dirt. When mixed with condensate, a very light oil compound, the diluted bitumen, now called dilbit, will flow in a pipeline. The whole oil sands production process releases more carbon dioxide(CO2) than conventional oil drilling.
The still heavy dilbit requires extra pressure to move through the pipeline, and it is also more acidic and corrosive than conventional oil. This creates a greater danger of pipeline leaks with risks to ground water aquifers such as the Ogallala, over which the pipeline will pass.
In response, pipeline builder TransCanada notes that existing dilbit pipelines are operating safely. This includes the Alberta Clipper pipeline which brings dilbit from Alberta to Northern Minnesota. The Alberta Clipper is a 1,607-km (1,000-mile) crude oil pipeline that provides service between Hardisty, Alberta, and Superior, Wis., A spur pipeline at Clearbrook, Minn., brings 300,000 dilbit barrels/day to our Pine Bend refinery, the source of most of Minnesota’s gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. Nebraska governor, DaveHeineman, has approved a revised route for the Keystone Pipeline. He has sent a letter to President Obama that said TransCanada would adhere to 57 safety conditions. Those include rigorous pipeline design, testing and the reporting of leaks. It would also avoid Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sandhills region. TransCanada had submitted this new route for the pipeline, expected to transport 830,000 barrels per day of oil, after the Obama administration had rejected an initial plan. Environmentalists had complained it would cross ecologically sensitive regions in Nebraska. Governor Heineman also noted that TransCanada would provide evidence that it is carrying $200 million in third party insurances to cover any cleanup costs from leaks.
The residents of Alberta love their lands and waters, and they are capable of preserving those assets without our help. Alberta’s government monitors all aspects of oil sands production. The province of Alberta has 147,000 square miles of boreal forest. A total area of 1,850 square miles is set aside for oil sands surface mining. About 350 square miles have so far been disturbed. Producers are required to restore disturbed land and make deposits to a fund guaranteeing restoration. That fund now totals $900 million. Water usage is limited by a law requiring that existing and approved oil projects may not use more than a total of 3 percent of the annual average flow of the Athabasca River, the primary area water source. Water in the region is continually monitored to assure that it meets Alberta’s strong standards for toxins.
As to green house gases(GHGs) such as CO2, 80 percent of oil GHG emissions come from the end use burning of the gasoline or diesel made from the crude. Those emissions are the same for conventional and oil sands oil. Therefore, the overall well to wheel difference is small. At present, all Canadian oil sands operations account for about 1/10 of 1 percent of world CO2 emissions. We need serious carbon tax and fuel conservation measures to reduce fossil fuel consumption and emissions. But pipelines will remain the safest and lowest cost way to transport oil and gas, our major energy fuel source for decades to come.
Rolf Westgard is a member of the Geological Society of America and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.