Unraveling the Keystone Pipeline

Keystone XL pipeline. Those words have become the latest in the ideological battles between Democrats and Republicans. The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which is proposed to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries, has gone on for years. As with most divisive issues, it has split the political debate into the left and right. Liberals are against it, generally for environmental reasons. Conservatives are for it, generally to make the U.S. more energy self-sufficient. However, the Keystone pipeline isn’t easily resolved by ideological posturing. The facts make it a much grayer issue than opponents and proponents would like you to believe.

BACKGROUND: The pipeline is planned to cover 1,179 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Nebraska. The U.S. portion is to cover 875 miles. At Steele City, the pipeline is to connect with other pipelines that will take the oil to the Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The pipeline can carry up to 830,000 barrels of oil a day.

The above is straightforward. There is not an argument there. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires approval from the federal government. With Republicans for it, and Democrats against it, the issue remains deadlocked as long as Washington has a divided government.

One point of clarification, the Alberta region where the Keystone pipeline begins has been called both tar sands and oil sands. It is the same thing. Both names were used interchangeably for years. In the last ten years, the petroleum industry has tried to make the product sound better by referring to it as oil sands. Tar sands are a better description, because they are sticky and more tarry than oily. That is what this article will use.

FACT: There is already a Keystone pipeline carrying oil from the tar sands. It is smaller and runs to Patoka, Illinois. There are also thousands of gallons a day coming into the U.S. by rail.

Keystone Pipeline routes (CC Meclee)

Keystone Pipeline route (CC Meclee)

Keystone was not a controversial issue at its beginning. Over time, It has become a centerpiece battle between environmentalists and oil companies. Environmentalists like to think that if Keystone is stopped in its present proposal, then a bottleneck in the transportation system will tie up the tar sands, which might be the richest oil deposit in the world.

Unfortunately, there are multiple avenues for the oil to be transported. One proposal plans a pipeline to the deep water ports in British Columbia. That has run into some opposition. Other pipelines and routes have been suggested, including  going east across Canada. Ultimately, rail may play a big role. The question has risen if rail can develop the capacity to carry what comes out of Alberta. It probably can since coal is already shipped primarily by rail.

FACT: Building the Keystone pipeline over two years will result in 42,000 jobs. After that, a few dozen or a few hundred would remain.

Some have made the argument that thousands upon thousands of jobs will be created by building the pipeline. In fact, the employment will be negligible and temporary, but probably significant for many of the small towns that the pipeline will run near. Creating jobs, however, is not a compelling reason to do this pipeline.

FACT: Transporting oil by pipeline is safer than rail.

Some have made the argument that the Keystone pipeline is unsafe. There are fears that a pipeline could burst and pollute the environment or spoil the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides the Midwest farm states with the bulk of their water.

The answer depends on what safety is being discussed. If it’s about death and property destruction, then trucked oil is the most dangerous of all, followed by rail, pipeline and boat. If the environment is the issue, then oil shipped by boat is the worst, followed by pipeline, truck and rail. So the pipeline is a bigger threat to the environment than rail, but rail is more deadly for people than a pipeline. There isn’t a clear cut choice on this issue.

The fear that the Ogallala Aquifer will be contaminated is an exaggeration. Modern pipelines have a multitude of sensors that can pick up any sizable spill. The existing Keystone pipeline has 16,000 sensors, and its operators boast that they can shut down any leak in 15 minutes. Of course, very small leaks can still get by the sensors. While there are concerns about water pollution from leaks, the world’s “number one expert” on the aquifer, James Goecke, a University of Nebraska hydrogeologist and professor emeritus, doesn’t buy into the gloom and doom. Goecke stated that any leak would be “very localized.”

FACT: The oil from the tar sands contains a petroleum known as bitumen. Bitumen is difficult to work with as it is not a free-flowing liquid like most petroleums. At 52 degrees Fahrenheit, bitumen is as “hard as a hockey puck.” Extracting the oil requires a great deal of injected steam. This requires extra energy and raises one of the environmental issues because the extra energy means extra greenhouse gases. Extracting from tar sands can double the greenhouse gas emissions as compared to conventional drilling. Once its extracted, it’s like any other oil. Overall, the extraction makes the petroleum from the tar sands 17-20% dirtier than most oil drilling.

Alberta tar sands (CC Jungbim)

Alberta tar sands (CC Jungbim)

Those opposed to Keystone like to point to the Alberta tar sands as providing “the dirtiest oil on the planet.” That is incorrect. There are 13 oil fields in California alone that produce more greenhouse emissions than the tar sands. One of those oil fields, Placerita, east of Los Angeles, produces twice the greenhouse gases as the Alberta tar sands extraction. Even the crude from Alaska’s north slope is dirtier than the tar sands. Arguably, Nigeria has the dirtiest oil on the planet, but don’t count out Venezuelan bitumen or Mexican heavy crude. In other words, the tar sands have plenty of company under the title of “dirty oil.”

Climate change is a real problem that needs to be addressed, but as long as the world is using fossil fuels as its main energy source, it is essential to have affordable energy. That means oil. When it comes to greenhouse gases, the tar sands don’t help. They hurt, but we are pumping thousands of barrels of oil a day out of just California that are a lot worse for climate change than what the proposed Keystone pipeline will generate.

FACT: Extracting oil from the tar sands isn’t the only threat to the climate. The refined product known as petroleum coke or pet coke is a very serious concern.

In the process of refining oil, complex molecules of heavy hydrocarbons are broken down into simpler molecules. This results in pet coke, a hard substance similar to coal. Like coal, it is used to fuel power plants. Different oil grades produce different pet cokes. Some are high in sulfur; some are low. Pet coke high in sulfur is worse as a pollutant than the lowest grade coal. Guess which type of pet coke bitumen makes? Yep, Alberta tar sands is the real bad stuff.

Oil Change International, an advocacy group seeking an end to fossil fuels, declared that the tar sands produce 24% more CO2 in pet coke than the equivalent pet coke produced from light oil. They are probably right. However, that is true with bitumen or heavy crude from Mexico, Venezuela or anywhere.

Tar sands oil that has been refined in the upper Midwest has created massive pet coke piles in places like Detroit. The EPA won’t allow it to be burned in this country. Nevertheless, Detroit and other places don’t need to worry about being overrun with the stuff because its ultimate destination are places like Mexico and China where it is burned in power plants.

In the great wisdom of the U.S. government, it won’t allow powerful climate change materials like high-sulfur pet coke to be burned in this country as a fuel. No, it can be produced in this country and then shipped overseas where the CO2 will have just as much impact on the climate as if it was burned here.

CONCLUSION: The Keystone pipeline is not likely to affect the Alberta tar sands oil getting to market, except…

When the State Department issued a report on the Keystone project, it determined that Keystone would not affect whether the oil got to market. The State Department assumed that global demand would push Canada to develop other pipelines, shipping or rail to get it to refineries in case the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved. That is true, if oil climbs above the $70-75 per barrel threshold. The big advantage for the oil companies is that the pipeline would transport tar sands oil to market by at least $8 a barrel less than rail. The threshold price to open more production in the tar sands would be about 10% less with the pipeline than without it.

If the price of oil starts to push $100 a barrel again, tar sands oil is going to hit the market with gusto. Keystone pipeline or no Keystone pipeline – it will not matter. If oil stays cheap like it is now, the tar sands are not going to be profitable in the long run, pipeline or not. What the pipeline does is make Alberta tar sands oil cheaper and more likely to be used. There is not a good reason why we should be filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gas emissions when oil is cheap and plentiful. There is enough dirty oil out there now accomplishing that.

Those who have pointed to the dangers of climate change warn that the true cost of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not adequately addressed in a price of a barrel of oil. The Keystone pipeline will only add to camouflaging those hidden costs. If anything, we should be shutting down the heavy crude that is the worst for the climate and bringing forth renewables and nuclear power that don’t create climate change. Keystone may or may not be a tipping point. However, at some time, we must break the addiction to climate changing fossil fuels. This is as a good of a time as any. The Keystone pipeline perpetuates climate changing cheap fossil fuels. It should not go forward.

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