Keystone XL: It’s not just a headline, it’s a pipeline — and here’s what you need to know

August 19, 2013

Nothing grabs our attention like big headlines. During the eras of radio and television, they provided the sound bites we used to sort big events. We all remember some of the more famous ones, like “Man Walks on Moon” (New York Times, July 21, 19, 1969), “Japan Surrenders, End of War” (New York Times, August 15, 1945), or “Shuttle Explodes!” (New York Times January 28, 1986). And who can forget “Dewey Defeats Truman” (Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1948), and “Passengers Safely Moved and Steamer Taken in Tow” (Christian Science Monitor, April 15, 1912)?

We still count on headlines to see not only whether to buy the paper, but also which stories we pay attention to. When we see headlines that say, “800,000 Americans tell Senate to Stop Pipeline,” or “Tar Sands and the Pipeline,” we take notice.  We want to know why .26 percent of the population is openly against something.

What are “tar sands”? And what do we even mean by “the pipeline”?  Here’s my stab at it:

photo courtesy wikimedia

The Keystone XL pipeline is a system of pipelines that will transport crude oil from Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada through the United States to refiners and transportation hubs in Illinois, Oklahoma, and the Gulf of Mexico. That’s over 2,000 miles of pipelines. The Athabasca oil sands, or tar sands, is an oil-rich area of boreal forest and peat bogs. The tar sand may hold around 133,000 million barrels of oil (133,000,000,000 barrels of bitumen crude.)

Bitumen is a sticky, black semisolid also know as asphalt. Bitumen is usually mined from the surface. Then it is broken up, heated with water, and filtered down to just the crude oil. Techniques like steam-assisted gravity drainage can do away with the surface mining and make the bitumen flow like traditional crude. Bitumen-based fuel does contain more greenhouse gasses than conventional crude based fuels; it may contain at least 5 percent more carbon dioxide.

Currently Canada is our largest supplier of foreign crude. They supply us with 2 million barrels of oil per day out of the 19 million we use each day. Once the Keystone XL is finished, Canada would be able to deliver .5 million more barrels a day. That would be 500,000 that the United States would not have to buy from overseas.

The construction of a new pipeline system that large would provide a lot of temporary construction jobs, however no one is sure about the number. Some groups predict 20,000 direct jobs and another 100,000 ancillary ones while others predict only 6,000 jobs. Which one is correct? If you build it, they will come. That may be the only way to figure out how many jobs it will create.

Every time a new pipeline system is proposed for construction, controversy breaks out. People are worried about how it could effect the environment. A large pipeline system that will run across a state, states, or even countries has the potential to alter a large environmental area. It is important to minimize the effect on the environment.  In addition to the usual concerns, the Keystone XL is proposed to go across the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies most of the water for the Midwestern states. If there were a spill, it could contaminate the water source of 4 million people. One of the reasons the pipeline was rejected in January of 2012 was to allow a more complete study of its potential impact and to discuss alternative routes.

Regardless of what the United States decides to do, Canada will develop their natural resource. The United States is not the only nation eager to bring in more oil. China has a huge growth demand for their economy and industry. From 2006 to 2010, China tripled the number of cars inside its borders, and the number will continue to grow. If we don’t buy the crude, China will. Because China and Canada are not physically connected, the trade will have to rely on tankers, so not only will China be using an oil that produces more carbon dioxide, they will have to produce more C02 to get the oil to where it can be used.

With all that, will the pipeline be developed? President Obama did address the pipeline in his June energy speech. The President has said he would only approve the pipeline “if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” How much carbon does it take to exacerbate the environment? The groups that decry the pipeline say that any carbon added to the atmosphere during construction would be too much and groups that support the pipeline say any amount of carbon would be offset by the amount of jobs and energy security it would bring.

What sort of carbon credits could be used by the different construction companies?  We’ll have to wait to see what actual guidelines developed. What do you think?

Authored By Daniel Burch

An inveterate punster, amateur chef, and fencer, Daniel B has a double degree in History and Museum Science from Baylor. He currently serves as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Wiess Energy Hall and Adult Education at HMNS.

4 responses to “Keystone XL: It’s not just a headline, it’s a pipeline — and here’s what you need to know”

  1. Jennifer Seale says:

    Great article Daniel. If Canada is going to produce this resource and U.S. wants to get access to it, what other options for transporting are there? By ship, rail, or truck? Do the risk assessment. Which transportation option is going to be the most economical, provide the most jobs, produce the least amount of carbon dioxide, and be at the least risk for an accident or spill?

  2. Daniel says:

    Those are wonderful questions. I am going to answer them, but it will be a bit longer than this thought bubble allows. I should be done with at least the first part of the answer by next week. I was surprised by some of the information I found.

  3. Kathy Kraft says:

    Thanks for this; I have been trying to research it myself. The element of politics has made it difficult. But in your opinion, is an additional 500,000 a day that would accrue from this be worth the construction? If it is Canada’s pipeline, who actually benefits financially? Do I understand that we won’t be refining it? And Last, I thought the real concern wasn’t the small increase in carbon output but the spills of this sludge and the poor record of this pipeline already. China, since it has no emissions standards, will buy it anywhere as you say and that increase will occur irrespective of what we do. I guess my question boils down to this: will the US benefit enough to make this worthwhile?

    Very confusing, thanks. Kathy

  4. Daniel says:

    It’s an exciting subject to try and put the pieces together and find the relevant information out of all the bits out there.

    What’s interesting and what you don’t hear about in the media is that over 2300 miles has already been constructed and is in operation from Alberta to Oklahoma. What’s left is from Oklahoma to Texas and a second line from Alberta To Nebraska. Trans Canada does own the entire pipeline, the bought out ConocoPhillips. That means that they won’t have to pay others to move their crude and can charge others who want to use their pipeline to move their crude, much like a toll road. Who benefits from it? The major winner ins Trans Canada. The pipeline has been in construction since 2008, so that’s 5 years’ worth of local construction jobs and all the secondary and tertiary jobs that spring up around a large scale construction project. The crude is going to refineries in the USA, so that increased the amount of work they have. And that additional 500,000 is crude that we are buying from a Canadian company which is far more stable than buying the oil from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, or anywhere else. In fact if Google stable, safe, or happy countries Canada is always on the list (with Norway almost always in 1st place) unlike the majority of major oil producing countries. That doesn’t mean that the USA will get to use that oil or refined products.

    The original controversy is how destructive mining oil sands are and how much carbon dioxide it produces. Mining the oil sands is a strip mining process. It’s not pretty and it destroys the local environment. Like any strip mining process companies can go back in and restore some of the environment after there down, but that won’t bring back any old growth. The process also emits about 15% more carbon dioxide than traditional drilling. There are concerns that a major leak or break could several damage the mid-west main source of water.

    Now the big question, as one of my teacher called it, “so what.” Or is getting the oil from the tar sands good and is it good for America? Again getting oil from tar sands is not the best thing for the environment. Unless the price of oil (about $103 a barrel) suddenly drops by a large percent (which would probably be another global economic down turn), it will be in Canada’s economic interest to mine the oil. It’s in the USA interest to get more oil from Canada than from less stable countries.

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