Tar Sands vs. Conventional Oil: What’s the Difference?
by Jody Harlan, Oklahoma Sierra Club
The Canadian company TransCanada is already injecting toxic and corrosive tar sands crude into the 485-mile Keystone XL Gulf Coast Project pipeline, sometimes known as KXL South. In early 2014, TransCanada will start transporting 700,000 barrels every day across private property from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries near Houston, Texas. From Texas, most of it is headed overseas to China and other countries.
The pipeline would not decrease U.S dependence on foreign oil, stabilize oil prices or reduce gasoline prices at American pumps.
Why? Because Keystone XL is a pipeline through, not to, America.
Why does TransCanada want to sell tar sands overseas?
It is more profitable to convert tar sands to diesel fuel. There is limited demand for diesel in the U.S., but it brings a high price overseas. So tar sands companies make more money when they sell it outside the U.S.
What’s the difference between tar sands and conventional crude?
Tar sands are one of the most carbon-polluting sources of oil on the planet – up to 22% more carbon-intensive than the average oil used in the U.S.
Yet tar sands producers do not have to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund because tar sands is NOT classified as oil.
Refining tar sands crude results in dangerous emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid mist and toxic heavy metals, such as lead, nickel and mercury. Heavy metal toxicity cause progressive physical, muscular and neurological degenerative diseases. Tar sands contain more cancer-causing chemicals than conventional crude -- 11 times more sulfur, 11 times more nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead.
Producing a barrel of tar sands takes 3-4 times more energy and four times more water than processing a barrel of conventional oil.
How is tar sands produced?
The Canadian Boreal forest (which captures and stores twice as much climate-disrupting carbon as tropical rain forests per acre) is bulldozed to get the tar underneath. Then, the tar is heated to remove sand. A toxic product called bitumen is diluted with cancer-causing solvents, such as toluene, benzene and xylene, in order to transport distilled bitumen or dilbit through over-sized pipe under extremely high pressure and heat.
Another process called Mining and Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage process heats water to high temperatures, injects it underground to melt the bitumen and separate it from the soil. The bitumen is pumped to the surface for additional processing.
What could go wrong?
It’s not IF tar sands will spill; it’s WHEN.
Dilbit is highly corrosive to new pipelines, causing leaks during the first years of operation. Forcing dilbit through old pipelines has caused major environmental disasters.
Twelve spills (that we know about) occurred during the first year of operation of the original TransCanada Keystone tar sands pipeline.
The Canadian company Enbridge owns a pipeline that spilled 1.2 million gallons of toxic dilbit into the river in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2010. Almost four years later, the river is still a toxic cesspool. The Environmental Protection Agency admits they don’t know how to clean it up.
Dilbit ate through ExxonMobil’s Peagus tar sands pipeline, built in 1947, and spilled 5,000 barrels of toxic, tar sands crude in Mayflower, Arkansas in May 2013. This pipeline was never constructed to carry corrosive dilbit. Eighty-three citizens were evacuated from their homes (many have still not been able to return) and 2,000 barrels were not recovered and reached the public water supply.
Why do environmental groups and many other Oklahomans oppose tar sands pipelines like the KXL?
We are concerned because citizens and our property and water sources are in danger.
Watchdog groups like Public Citizen have already uncovered more than 125 abnormalities in the 250-mile southern section of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The problems include inadequate underlying support, rocks in the ditch that make the pipeline likely to dent and leak, under-packed soil and improper coatings that will cause catastrophic problems if left unrepaired.
The 485-mile Keystone XL Pipeline crosses hundreds of streams and rivers and comes within a few miles of some towns and cities.
Transporting Keystone XL tar sands will cause a 36% increase in oil sands production. Increased emissions would equal annual emissions from 6.3 coal-fired power plants or more than 4.6 million cars, according to a Pembina Institute report.
Dr. James Hansen, a leading climatologist now retired from NASA, states that the Keystone XL pipeline is the fuse to the greatest carbon bomb on the planet. Its completion, Hansen said, will be “game over" for the climate if tar sands were fully exploited.
Clean-up after tar spills is almost impossible because, unlike conventional oil which floats, tar sands sink to the bottom of water bodies. The toxic solvents wash downstream and can’t be contained by booms used to isolate conventional oil spills.
But Keystone XL creates a lot of jobs, right?
Actually, no. This is a sweet, tax-free deal for TransCanada, but not for Oklahoma job seekers or the U.S. In spite of exaggerated employment promises, the pipeline may destroy more jobs than it creates, according to Sean Sweeney, director of the Cornell ILR Global Labor Institute: “This includes jobs lost due to consumers in the Midwest paying 10 to 20 cents more per gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel, as Keystone XL diverts oil from refineries in the Midwest to the Gulf region.”
Why didn’t somebody do something?
We tried. Sierra Club, Clean Energy Future Oklahoma and the East Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission sued the Tulsa Army Corps district, which was authorized to issue permits in Oklahoma using Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP-12) under the Clean Water Act. NWP-12 was not supposed to be used for major projects. No public notice or comments, or Environmental Impact Statements are required. In October 2013, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that denied legal action requested by these groups to stop KXL pipeline construction while the lawsuit went through the court system. Our suit against NWP-12 is awaiting judgment in federal district court.
Sierra Club sued the State Department in June 2013 for withholding documents related to a draft environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline by Environmental Resources Management, a company with a conflict of interest due to financial ties to the oil industry.
We held a peaceful protest called GREENwalk Against Toxic Tar Sands Pipelines, especially the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was attended by 82 people in Stroud, Oklahoma on 09/21/13. We sent photos of participants in front of the Keystone XL Pipeline to President Barack Obama.
Why was TransCanada forced to dig up the pipeline they just installed in rural East Texas?
TransCanada was forced to dig up the KXL southern route in at least 125 locations this summer -- not because of “an abundance of caution” as TransCanada would have us believe. They were forced to address code violations that jeopardized pipeline safety.
The East Texas Observer, Public Citizen and others took photos and videos that document construction code violations even when TransCanada was supposed to be repairing abnormalities.
What did PHMSA tell TransCanada to do?
The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued warnings to TransCanada concerning multiple code violations, including repairs needed in 205 of 423 welds in Spread 3 of the pipeline. However, PHSMA has not followed up to verify that violations that caused the abnormalities have been corrected.
What should PHMSA do now?
PHMSA should issue a Corrective Action Order that requires TransCanada to correct abnormalities and rebuild the Keystone XL Gulf Coast Project according to long-established, industry-wide safety code before they put Oklahomans and their property at risk early next year.
What should Congress do?
Congress should hold oversight hearings to make sure PHMSA investigates abnormalities and conducts a quality assurance review. PHMSA must tell TransCanada to stop transporting toxic oil through the pipeline until TransCanada proves they have fixed pipeline safety issues that endanger the health and safety of people who live along the route.
How is KXL connected to carbon pollution and climate disruption?
Climate scientists warn that concentrations of carbon dioxide (C02) greater than 350 parts per million result in atmospheric warming. Unfortunately, concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now above 400 parts per million.
Are there other tar sands pipelines planned for Oklahoma?
Yes. The Canadian company Enbridge (the one that spilled 1.2 million gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River) is building the 600-mile Flanagan South tar sands pipeline that would pump 600,000 barrels per day from Flanagan, Illinois through Missouri and Kansas to (you guessed it) Cushing, Oklahoma. Enbridge’s Seaway pipeline is supposed to transport the tar sands south to Houston.
What is Sierra Club doing about Flanagan South?
Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers‘ authority to issue a Nationwide Permit 12 without the use of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and sued for an injunction - or halt - in construction. The judge shot that down on the grounds that Enbridge's corporate profits were more important than irreparable environmental and ecological harms. Sierra Club is going to court to defend endangered species, building alliances with Native American nations, labor and businesses and organizing events and town halls to strengthen opposition.
What should we do?
We must stop the pipeline before it’s too late. Please tell five friends and ask them to tell five friends. Look up U.S. senators and representatives at http://www.capitolconnect.com/oklahoma/default.aspx and share your thoughts. Post information on social media sites; write letters to the editor; tell your mom; put a sign in your window (How about “Keystone XL is a pipeline through, not to, Oklahoma”? Find your own way to educate and inspire others, and get the attention of decision-makers before it’s too late.