Why Are Some Americans Fighting the Keystone XL Pipeline?

In the recent US presidential campaign, the Keystone XL Pipeline got some attention from both candidates. The proposed pipeline would carry oil from tar sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. So why are some Americans fighting the pipeline?

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Tar sands are just that – sands with tar in them. The soil is silty, like sand, and contains petroleum deposits called bitumen. Unlike conventional oil wells which produce crude oil that flows as a liquid, the bitumen looks like tar.

For decades, the low cost of imported oil made it impractical to develop petroleum from tar sands. Prices for other petroleum sources, like imported oil, have risen above the cost of extracting and refining the petroleum from tar sands. Now, the high price of oil, better extraction technology and an existing network of pipelines makes it cost-effective to extract the petroleum from tar sands.

You can find an interactive map (like the one below) of existing and proposed liquid pipelines on the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association website. If you use the filter at the top of the key in the upper right-hand corner of the map, you can select “proposed and under construction” to see the proposed route of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

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It seems the people protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline have severely underestimated the economics of the situation. If the Keystone XL Pipeline doesn’t bring that petroleum to the United States, it will go to the west coast of Canada where it will be exported to China. That petroleum is coming out of the ground to meet rising demand whether we like it or not – the global competition for oil resources has made it too valuable to leave it in place.

It would be more effective to advocate for solutions to two of the key problems with extracting oil from the tar sands: 1) The extraction process involves energy-intensive practices like strip mining. Though the land is reclaimed when the bitumen is separated from the sands, it can be a destructive process. Separating the bitumen from the sand is also water intensive. 2) Petroleum from the tar sands is higher in hydrocarbons than conventional sources of oil (like imported crude oil). That’s a significant issue for any group or government concerned about global warming.

There’s an estimated two trillions barrels of tar sands oil in the world, much of it in Canada, with 12-19 billion barrels in eastern Utah. Countries like China can pay cash to lock up the rights to oil resources like the tar sands in Canada and other countries. If they consume it without working to develop technologies to address the resulting greenhouse gases, it will be as if we consumed it – we all share the same atmosphere.

This seems like a critical opportunity for the United States – providing the leadership and resources to develop better extraction, refining and carbon capture technology to significantly reduce the impact of oil produced from tar sands. In addition to providing more stable energy prices, it would significantly grow the number of long-term jobs in the energy sector of the global economy. Investing in tar sands technology also keeps a huge amount of money in the North American economy – the United States is currently sending about $1B each day to other countries in exchange for oil.

While tar sands will probably never be part of a clean energy economy, the increase in jobs and money that remains in our economy will help raise productivity and per capita earnings – money that can be invested in better solutions like energy efficiency in our homes and renewable energy resources like on-site solar and wind power generation.

First image by Chesapeake Climate used under creative commons license. Second image from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

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