The Keystone XL Pipeline: Environmental Impact
Abstract. The topic of global oil production is becoming a well-recognized political issue, as it should, but the environmental impacts need to be addressed as well. The recent development project of the Canadian oil sands has been put into the spotlight after the TransCanada Company applied for a permit allowing their Keystone XL pipeline. Introduction. The Keystone XL pipeline is a project of oil companies invested in tar sands oil, which will cause serious harm to humans, wildlife, and the environment.
The proposed pipeline would carry 800,000 barrels a day of toxic tar sands bitumen more than 2,000 miles across six different states. The tar sands fields located in Alberta, Canada consist of about 2 trillion barrels of heavy crude oil covered by the vast Boreal forest. The extraction process would destroy an area larger than the state of Florida and at the same time use vast amounts of natural gas and water recourses. Tar sands oil produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced oil because of the energy required to extract and process the tar sands oil.
The pipeline poses the immediate threat of spills and leaks but additionally increase carbon emissions that will cause long-term damage to the climate. Expanding the industry would harm the global market’s goal of a reliable, clean energy plan and instead force dependency on fossil fuels. Tar Sands 101. Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen- a thick, heavy, black hydrocarbon with the consistency of tar. The largest of these deposits of tar sands are in Canada. They are found in the Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River regions of northern Alberta across 55,000 square miles within traditional First Nations’ territories.
For decades these deposits have been ignored by the oil industry because the dirty tar sands oil is so much more expensive and difficult to produce than conventional oil. The continuing demand for fossil fuels has encouraged the pursuit of these inefficient sources of oil to feed the market’s addiction. Canada’s Boreal Forest located above the tar sands is one of the most important forests in the world. It is one-quarter of the earth’s remaining untouched forests and is 11% of the planet’s terrestrial carbon storehouses. Because
of its importance for carbon storage, this forest is considered to be a life-support system for the planet. Instead of protecting this resource, companies are implementing strip-mining and drilling operations in Alberta (EIS, 2012). Extraction. Canadian tar sands deposits are found primarily under Alberta’s Boreal Forest and wetlands that covers over 140,000 square kilometers: an area larger than England. This forest is the critical habitat for about fifty percent of North America’s migratory birds and some of the largest populations of moose, lynx, grizzly bears, and wolves on the planet (White, 2014).
Oil companies drilling across the untouched forest for tar sands leaves behind giant toxic wastelands. In order to strip-mine, the forest has to be clear-cut, the wetlands drained, and rivers and streams diverted. By 2008, mining operations had destroyed over 200 square miles of the Boreal forest and future approved operations would strip-mine an additional 360 square miles (Alberta, 2006). Colossal steam shovels remove the top layer of tar-filled sand, each of these burn 4,200 gallons of diesel per day then enormous dump trucks haul the sand to the extraction plant.
Only 20% of the sand is shallow enough to be extracted by open pit mining. Deposits at depths of more than 328 feet require steam up to 1,000 degrees to heat the sand in order to reduce the bitumen’s viscosity to allow it to drain and then be pumped up to the surface for pre-processing. The process for removing the oil involves heating the tar sands using natural gas and washing it with huge volumes of fresh water to separate the extremely thick bitumen from the rest of the mixture.
It must go through an “upgrading” process because it is impure and too viscous to flow before it can be sent through a pipeline to an oil refinery (Smith, 2009). Producing only one barrel of tar sands oil requires: Extracting at least four tons of earth (half of which is tar sands). Contaminating two to four barrels of fresh water. Releasing at least three times more global warming pollution than conventional oil. The contaminated water leftover from this process creates toxic lakes so large they are visible from space (Greenpeace, 2014).
This sludge contains cancer-causing pollutants that migrate into the groundwater and leak into the surrounding soil and surface water. The tailings ponds threaten the area’s migratory birds, for example, in the spring of 2008, 1,600 migrating ducks were killed after landing in one of the Syncrude tailing ponds. Scientists have estimated that the real number of waterfowl deaths to be much higher (Jones, 2009). Alberta is the home of 44 First Nations indigenous groups; many of these peoples are being impacted by the tar sands development.
Consequences suffered by these groups have ranged from land rights and health issues to loss of livelihood. For example, the Beaver Lake Cree challenged the Alberta government with a lawsuit over the effects of tar sands extraction on their traditional hunting and fishing lands. They aim to protect the caribou, elk, moose, deer, and other animals that are disappearing or becoming plagued with disease and also prevent the damage done to fish stocks and plants used for traditional medicine by pollution (Smith, 2009).
Pipeline Safety / Risk of Oil Spills. TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline would carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day across more than 2,000 miles over six different states. The pipeline will travel through America’s heartland, the Ogallala aquifer, sage grouse habitat, walleye fisheries, and the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers. People, wildlife, and property are at risk along the pipeline route; like public water supplies, crop lands, wildlife habitats, and recreational opportunities.
TransCanada has applied for a permit from the Department of Transportation that would allow the company to use thinner steel in its pipes and waive important safety regulations. The permit would save the company money by allowing it to pump the dirty oil at high pressures that raise the risk of hazardous leaks. The mechanism used to detect pipeline leaks is imperfect, so small leaks can be present for as much as three months before they are found. These leaks go directly into the soil without vegetation or surface layers to act as a barrier and can penetrate multiple layers of soil.
Catastrophic leaks or ruptures are detected faster, but in only a few minutes thousands of barrels of oil can be spilled (Consulting, 2006). Federal regulators issued TransCanada with a Corrective Action Order (CAO) in 2011 after determining the Keystone tar sands pipeline was an imminent threat to life, property, and the environment (Wiese, 2011). The Keystone XL will run through the Ogallala Aquifer, or the High Plains aquifer, located in the Great Plains. Even if the pipeline company can detect a leak and shut down the pipeline within the first several hours, the leak would have already contaminated the aquifer.
Approximately 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States lies above this aquifer system, and 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation comes from this source. Also, the High Plains aquifer provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within its border (Dennehy, 2000). The threat of a leak is vey relevant; on Oct. 17, 2013, TransCanada subsidiary NGTL’s north-central corridor line, west of Fort McMurray, Alberta, ruptured. On Oct. 20, the North Lateral Extension Loop began to leak in Alberta. Another NGTL incident followed on Dec10, on the Flat Lake Lateral Loop line. The most recent rupture, on Jan. 25, near Otterburne, Manitoba, left 4,000 without heat during the winter and sent flames 300 meters into the sky (Nicholas, 2014). Enbridge, a company currently building a tar sands pipelines in the US, has been responsible for their pipelines spilling over four million gallons of hazardous liquids since 1973. Enbridge pipeline accidents occurring between 2003 and 2008 resulted in 13 fatalities, 29 injuries and $633 million in property damage (Thomas, 2009). CO2 Emissions.
Producing oil from tar sands emits three times the amount of global warming pollution than conventional oil, but the process also diminishes the Boreal Forest; which stores carbon, purifies air and water, and helps regulate regional and global climates. Scientists have calculated that the safe level for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million, which has already been surpassed at 400 parts per million; the highest levels found on earth in millions of years (350. org, 2014). The massive increase in carbon emissions has lead to devastating climate change and is responsible for causing extreme weather around the world.
It has been estimated that the CO2 emissions from the proposed pipeline could range from 12-23 million metric tons and given that the pipeline’s lifetime is expected to be fifty years, the project could produce 1. 15 billion tons of green house gas emissions. There is approximately 150 oil refineries in the United States that subject their surrounding communities to high levels of pollution. Tar sands crude will make the situation much worse because of the higher concentration of pollutants it produces (EPA, 2009).
Refining tar sands oil uses more energy than conventional oil because it requires an additional upgrade. Because of this, the refining process emits higher levels of greenhouse gasses that would only add to the United States’ current emissions. Some of the pollutants produced by refineries include air emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, heavy metals, and also discharges of ammonia and other chemicals into water systems (EPA, 2009).
Because bitumen is very heavy and impure, it must go through a ‘cracking’ process in order to make it lighter and remove its contaminants. This requires large inputs of energy and produces carbon dioxide; a key global warming pollutant. Canadian tar sands crude contains more sulfur, nitrogen and metals (including mercury, lead, nickel, and arsenic) than conventional crudes. Bitumen contains 2. 5 percent more sulfur and four times the nitrogen of conventional crude; resulting in increased emissions of pollutants such as SO2, NOx, VOCs, and metals (Crandall, 2002).
These pollutants being produced by refineries are harmful to human health. For example: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter can cause lung and respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, respiratory infections, and decreased lung function. Also, many metals such as mercury are neurotoxic and some volatile organic compounds emitted by refineries are carcinogenic (Woynillowicz, 2005). Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain, and volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide create smog and haze.
Tar sands pipelines need fossil fuel-consuming pumping stations along their length to keep the heavy oil moving through. If tar sands exports to the United States were to increase to three million barrels per day, as some industry experts have predicted, the carbon dioxide emissions from the pipeline transportation alone would be equivalent to the emissions from over one million passenger cars (Wang, 2009). Dependency on Fossil Fuels. Human rights are being violated, ecosystems destroyed, and the planet over-heated for the sake of oil profits.
Now this industry is seeking out even more remote and high-carbon sources of oil; the largest being the Canadian tar sands. The tar sands represent half of Canada’s total oil production. 99 percent of Canadian crude is exported to the United States. Only 10 percent of the United States’ crude oil is imported form Canada. Tar sands make up four percent of the United States’ oil consumption; at a rate of 800,000 barrels per day since 2008. Alberta’s oil exports are transported to the United States through a network of more than 10,000 miles of pipeline.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would bring as much as 900,000 barrels a day to the Gulf Coast (Canada, 2008). The International Energy Agency’s recently released World Energy Outlook 2009 report predicts long-term growth for Canada’s oil sands production climbing to 5 million barrels a day by 2030 (Smith, 2009). Currently, the TransCanada Company does not have access to coastal ports, which limits their ability to sell their product. The Keystone XL would deliver tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast; America’s largest transport and refining center.
It would effectively open the entire US market and international markets to tar sands crude, which would drive the expansion of all mining operations in Canada. The Keystone XL and similar projects will lock the United States into a greater dependence on dirty fuels and would more than triple the US consumption of tar sands oil. The decline in oil demand and the rise in alternative energy innovation in North America is an important step forward toward a new, clean energy economy.
Expanding tar sands projects is unnecessary and inhibits the nation’s progress while being severely destructive for the environment. Conclusion. The choice is between relying on the use of inefficient fossil fuels or moving forward to a clean energy future that would bring greater national security. The United States must move toward implementing a comprehensive oil savings plan and reduce oil consumption by increasing fuel efficiency standards, hybrid cars, renewable energy, environmentally sustainable biofuels, and smart growth to meet our transportation needs.