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Tar Sands, Global Warming, Protests, Keystone XL Pipeline

Tar Sands, Global Warming, Protests, Keystone XL Pipeline

What's the picture? It's some tar sand.



Introduction - What are Tar Sands?

Bituminous sands, colloquially known as oil sands or tar sands, are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit. The sands contain naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen (or colloquially "tar" due to its similar appearance, odour, and colour). Oil sands are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela. (Wikipedia).

Here is a map of the Athabasca sands in Alberta, Canada.

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The Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system to transport synthetic crude oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands in northeastern Alberta, Canada to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, and further to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It consists of the operational "Keystone Pipeline" and proposed Keystone XL (Keystone Expansion) pipeline.

The Keystone XL extension was proposed in 2008. The 3,190 kilometres (1,980 mi) long Keystone XL starts from the same area in Alberta as the main pipeline.The Canadian section will consist of 529 kilometres (329 mi) of new pipeline. It joins the main Keystone Pipeline at Steele City, Nebraska. From there it runs parallel to the Cushing extensions. From Cushing, it would be expanded to Port Arthur, Texas, and Houston, Texas.

Here is a picture of a truck hauling the 36' pipe used to construct the pipeline:


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Global Warming and Environmental Concerns

Dr. James Hansen (NASA): An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize the climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC Fourth Assessment Report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2). HERE is the graphic with these numbers from an extended statement by Hansen:

Commentary from Al Gore: The tar sands are the dirtiest source of fuel on the planet. As I wrote in Our Choice two years ago, gasoline made from the tar sands gives a Toyota Prius the same impact on climate as a Hummer using gasoline made from oil. This pipeline would be an enormous mistake. The answer to our climate, energy and economic challenges does not lie in burning more dirty fossil fuels - instead, we must continue to press for much more rapid development of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies and cuts in the pollution that causes global warming.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (more information): Making liquid fuels from oil sands requires energy for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. If combustion of the final products is included, the so-called "Well to Wheels" approach, oil sands extraction, upgrade and use emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude.

Water, Wildlife, Earthquakes: Environmental groups, concerned citizens, and politicians have raised a number of concerns about the potential impacts of the Keystone XL extension. One concern is that the pipeline could pollute air and water supplies and harm migratory birds and other wildlife. It will cross the Sandhills in Nebraska, the large wetland ecosystem, and the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world. The Ogallala Aquifer spans eight states, provides drinking water for two million people, and supports $20 billion in agriculture. Critics are concerned that a major leak could ruin drinking water and devastate the mid-western U.S. economy. Portions of the pipeline will also cross an active seismic zone that had a 4.3 magnitude earthquake as recently as 2002. Opponents claim that TransCanada applied to the U.S. government to use thinner steel and pump at higher pressures than normal.

Environmental Justice and Health: HERE is analysis by the Sierra Club of Canada:  Human health depends on a healthy environment.  When the environment becomes contaminated, we feel the impacts in the form of increases in the rate of disease and infection. Economically and socially marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by these impacts because too often they are the communities closest to the sources of health risks, such as toxic waste sites of tar sands developments. Oil sands development is having severe negative effects on the health of communities in Alberta, in particular the traditional stewards of the lands, the first nations of northern Alberta. Among the facts cited:

  • Communities downstream from the tar sands are experiencing cancer rates far higher than can be explained by change. Leukemia, lymphoma, lupus and rare forms of cancer have all increasing in recent years in the population that is for the most part made up of Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations.
  • Fish in Lake Athabasca fish in the last five or six years with great have been found with lumps on them, humpbacks, and crooked tails
  • Heavy metal pollution is a growing concern for communities located near oil sands operations and downstream from development- causing health problems for people and wildlife.
  • Costs to human health and ecosystems are not factored into the costs of oil sands projects.

Open Pit Mining and Forest Destruction: Approximately 20% of Alberta's oil sands are recoverable through open-pit mining, while 80% require in situ extraction technologies (largely because of their depth). Open pit mining destroys the boreal forest. 

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US Government Environmental Analyses (Pre-Trump)

The U.S. Department of State is charged with making recommendations to the president of the United States, who will decide by year-end if the pipeline should be built. The department said that the line could move forward with minimal environmental harm (the report is HERE), noting that the overall carbon emissions would not be much greater than those of other heavy crude oils that the United States refines. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the State Department, calling its analysis so far “insufficient.” The EPA letter is HERE. The EPA’s main concerns are that the line would traverse sensitive aquifers where this nation gets its drinking water. It also wants more data on the potential for line leakage. And, finally, it must be convinced that the lifecycle emissions tied to the oil would not add notably to greenhouse gas levels.

See Energybiz report for more detail.

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Protests Against the Keystone XL Pipeline at the White House

Peaceful protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline by environmentalists, faith groups, and indigenous people took place recently in front of the White House, with arrests; here is a picture:


Here is the testimony of Bill McKibben of Why I Spent 2 Days in Jail Protesting the Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

Tar Sands Action inspired by a UU's civil disobedience

Religious activists and organizations gathered August 29 outside the White House as part of a two-week protest called Tar Sands Action, which is aimed at pressuring President Obama to reject a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

HERE are statements by UUs who were arrested for demonstrating.

Indigenous People protest the XL Pipeline

We have to stand up for Mother Earth. We have to stand up for our sacred water—for our children, our grandchildren, for the coming generations,” said Lakota activist Debra White Plume at a rally prior to her arrest. She said that the aftereffects of oil sands drilling that would come along with the expansion of the pipeline would likely desecrate the freshwater Ogallala Aquifer near her homelands in Pine Ridge, S.D. “It is with great honor that I come here today to ask President Obama to stand with us for Mother Earth against Father Greed,” Plume said.

Here is Plume's picture just before her arrest:

Representatives of the National Congress of American Indians did not officially take part in the demonstration, even though the D.C.-based Indian advocacy organization in August issued a statement against the pipeline, saying it poses a major threat to Indians. 

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The Economics of Tar Sands

Dirty Fossil Fuels vs Clean Renewable Energy: We have a clear choice - continuing the economy of dirty fossil fuels exemplified by the Keystone XL pipeline with a straight path to climate disaster, or starting a new path toward mitigating climate change with an economy increasingly focused on clean renewable energies. HERE is an excellent letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that emphasizes the damage the Keystone XL pipeline would do to the Obama Administration’s clean energy aspirations. Forty-one Northeast organizations signed the letter.

Who will Profit? In February 2011, Reuters reported that Koch Industries were poised to be "big winners" from the pipeline.

The Koch brothers are leading funders of climate change contrarians/deniers/faux skeptics (see documentation in the UU-UNO Climate Portal essay HERE). This is relevant since denial of global warming plays into the argument for increased fossil fuel use, a clear case of greed trumping truth.

What about Jobs? A study by the Perryman Group, on behalf of TransCanada, the Calgary-based pipeline company behind the Keystone project concluded that the Keystone XL line would result in nearly 119,000 full-time equivalent jobs. However see HERE for criticism. It would be interesting to see an analysis of the comparison with increased renewable energy jobs that could result if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built.

What about US energy independence? Where will the oil wind up? The oil from the Texas refineries generated from Canadian tar sands will be put on the open market; much of it is likely to wind up in Asia. Little will be gained in terms of energy security for the US. In fact the likely decrease of emphasis for renewable energies if the pipeline is built could decrease US security in the long run.

Price of Oil: When oil prices were low, the vast amount of additional water and energy (and greenhouse gas pollution) needed to scrub and process these sorts of hydrocarbons into something suitable for market was simply uneconomical compared to conventional sources of crude. With oil prices closer to the $100 per barrel mark, the oil sands start looking like a better bet.

What about alternates for tar sands if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built? This probably would require Canada to build another pipeline to its west coast, across mountains and Native lands, probably with substantial disadvantages and delays. The proposed Enbridge pipeline is exactly this. HERE is a video showing First Nation opposition:

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The Politics of Tar Sands

Obama's decision (Greenpeace commentary): President Obama’s decision on this enormous fossil fuel project by the end of the year will not be a quiet deal with oil industry lobbyists; it will be witnessed by millions of voters who had hoped that President Obama would have the vision to get America off of oil with a moonshot program for oil-free cars by the next decade. Instead, oil profits have been pitted against the world that our children will live in, hooking America to some of the highest polluting oil without moving America quickly to a foreign oil-free future.

It should be noted that the State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses an international boundary.

Congress and Koch Industries: In May 2011, Congressmen Waxman and Rush wrote a letter to the Energy and Commerce Committee which cited the Reuters story, and which urged the Committee to request documents from Koch Industries which relate to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Here is the review process diagram from the EPA (right click for an enlarged view):

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Ref: Sources for information are in the links.

Last Edit 17Nov2017



(2019). Tar Sands, Global Warming, Protests, Keystone XL Pipeline. Retrieved from