Tar Sands Oil is Really Bad Stuff

Tar Sands Oil is Really Bad Stuff February 29, 2012

A former high school classmate of mine, Pam Bullock — who, unlike me, seems hardly to have aged at all in the 27 years since we graduated — writes on her blog about the Keystone XL pipeline. She writes, in part:

In addition to the risk of water contamination, another environmental controversy surrounding Keystone XL is the source of the oil itself: the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. Athabasca is largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world, containing over 1 trillion barrels of the sticky, viscous oil product. The problem is that extraction of crude oil from oil sands is more labor-intensive, more damaging to the land above the mine, and emits much more carbon dioxide than average crude oil production. Approximately two tons of oil sands are needed to produce one barrel – roughly 1/8 of a ton – of oil. Strip mining is the most common mining method used in Athabasca, which essentially scrapes the oil sands off the surface , damaging the land for future uses. Oil sands extraction emits 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude. Once extracted, the bitumen must then be thinned so that it can travel through a pipeline, and oil companies have not revealed exactly what chemicals are used to dilute it, or if there is potential for pollution from these chemicals…

TransCanada has responded to many of the criticisms of the Keystone XL project. It has insisted that new technology makes its pipelines closer than ever to being leak-free. As to the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer, TransCanada pointed out that fourteen different routes for Keystone XL are being studied, including one alternative route in Nebraska that would entirely avoid Ogallala aquifer, and six that would have reduced pipeline mileage crossing the aquifer. However, TransCanada is an energy storage company, not an oil company. It can make no guarantees regarding the environmental impact of the oil extraction, nor can it promise how the pipeline will affect the cost of oil in the United States.

I left a comment there, which I will reprint here:

TransCanada’s promise that modern pipeline technology makes spills far less likely is simply absurd. They said the same thing when they opened Keystone I, the first phase of the project. That pipeline has leaked more than 30 times since it went online almost two years ago.

We did a lot of reporting on this over the last couple years at the Michigan Messenger, in the wake of the spill of nearly a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. That was the first major spill of tar sands oil in the United States and it revealed just how different that oil is from conventional crude. A few examples:

1. Because of its sludgy thickness, tar sands oil produces a huge number of false pressure alarms in pipelines. One expert who has worked in pipeline control rooms for decades told us that they would literally have hundreds of false pressure alarms every day from the stuff, making it impossible to know whether there’s a leak until someone on the ground actually sees oil. By that time, it’s too late. That’s why so much oil was released in Calhoun County in 2010 before they got it shut off — they went more than 12 hours between the first report of the smell of oil to the shutting off of the valves.

2. Tar sands oil reacts very differently than conventional crude when it hits water. Because it’s so thick, it sinks to the bottom. As it breaks down, it returns to the surface and recontaminates even after all the skimming is done. The EPA thought they had the Kalamazoo river mostly cleaned up and the spill contained until last spring, when the oil started coming to the surface. Then they found out it had been spreading along the bottom all along.

3. Tar sands oil is laden with heavy metals in higher concentration than conventional crude. After the Michigan spill, the EPA didn’t even know that it had to test for heavy metal contamination until one of my former reporters, Eartha Melzer, asked them whether they had done such testing. When they did perform those tests, they found significant amounts of heavy metals in water and soil samples as a result of the spill.

4. The process of extracting and refining tar sands oil into gasoline is far worse for the environment than conventional crude. It requires huge amounts of water and energy to separate the tar-like bitumen from the environment and the pollution from refining the stuff is significantly higher than even the usual pollution from oil refineries (which is bad enough already).

Tar sands oil is nasty stuff. I would much rather put resources into developing alternative fuels instead.

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