President-elect Donald Trump has signaled that he will direct his administration to approve construction of the 4th leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This is sure to reignite the debate over the merits of the project, and if extracting oil from tar sands fields is environmentally sound.
The Keystone Pipeline transports tar sands oil from an 80,000 km stretch of forest in Alberta to Illinois for processing. The fourth leg of the pipeline will extend to Gulf of Mexico processing facilities. Tar sands oil, or bitumen, is a gooey version of oil mixed with sand, clay, and water. Experts estimate that the Alberta tar sands could hold as much as 2 trillion barrels of oil, which brings Canada to third place in world oil production, just behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Proponents of tar sands development claim it will reduce dependence on unreliable foreign producers.
However, extracting tar sands is a dirty business. Pumping bitumen from the ground can not be done in its natural state. The two methods of extraction both have extensive drawbacks. The first involves pumping water and natural gas into the sands to separate the bitumen. This process poses a threat of groundwater contamination. The second method strip mines the tar sands from the land and heats them to separate out the bitumen. This method actually produces more carbon emissions than conventional oil production, a questionable process in light of climate change.
Once the bitumen is extracted it is ready for transport for further processing. There are two methods of getting the oil to its destination: pipeline or train.
Transporting bitumen by train is certainly a dangerous proposition. Train tracks run through populated areas, with derailment a potentially deadly consequence for residents. In 2013 a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Once it left the tracks cars exploded creating a “tsunami of fire” that leveled 40 buildings. Toxic fumes from the fire forced the evacuation of 2000 residents. A US group called ForestEthics estimates that 25 million people live in the blast zone of an oil train derailment, and similar figures are gauged for Canada.
Trains carrying tar sands actually pose a more serious threat than trains carrying straight crude. Bitumen doesn’t flow naturally, and to get it into a tank car it’s diluted with natural gas liquids, which are highly explosive. In 2015 a train carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, derailed in a remote area of Ontario, and the resulting fire burned for six days.
So pipelines like Keystone would seem the safer bet. However, pipelines carry their own set of liabilities. Explosions are a possibility, but leaks are a more prevalent and persistent problem. Tar sands oil, especially in the form of dilbit, presents a special dilemma.
In 2010 a pipeline run by the Canadian company Enbridge ruptured, spilling over a million gallons of dilbit into a creek feeding into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The natural gas liquids separated from the bitumen and returned to a gaseous state, drifting through nearby neighborhoods, and forcing permanent evacuation for some residents. Unlike oil, which floats on water, bitumen is heavy and sticky and it spread quickly over the riverbed. The petroleum industry has no proven way to clean up a bitumen spill, and the creek and the river remain contaminated today.
The company behind Keystone, TransCanada, promises that the pipeline will adhere to the highest safety standards possible. But, examining the Enbridge spill raises serious flags. Enbridge knew of the weakness in the pipeline almost 5 years before the spill and did nothing to remedy it. The team handing their warning systems was badly trained and so used to false alarms they ignored them and continued to pump dilbit through the pipeline for 17 hours. Enbridge is not an outlier; typing “pipeline accidents” into Wikipedia brings up thousands and thousands of incidents.
The Keystone pipeline will likely be built. But really, what’s badly needed is a serious look at what we are willing to trade in terms of safety and a clean environment for squeezing the last bit of oil out of the ground. There are cleaner sources of energy that offer a way forward without “extracting” such a price.