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Tar Sands: A Costly Consideration

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Photo Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarsandsaction/ The Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL is the latest proposed tar sands pipeline expansion by TransCanada. This pipeline could bring as much as 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) of costly and polluting fuel to the U.S. Gulf Coast. If approved by the Obama Administration, this pipeline will lock the United States into a dependence on hard-to-extract oil and generate a massive expansion of the destructive tar sands oil operations in Canada. Just the additional emissions from replacing 830,000 barrels per day of conventional oil with tar sands oil would add 24.3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent into our atmosphere, every year for at least the 50- year expected lifetime of the pipeline. This quantity of emissions is equivalent to adding over 5 million passenger vehicles to the road, or constructing 7 new coal-fired power plants every year. Again, the total impact of the pipeline would be much greater than just these incremental emissions for the oil carried by the project, as the pipeline’s approval would trigger substantial financial investment in the tar sands, furthering massive expansions of tar sands mining projects.

In addition to the damage that would be caused by the increased tar sands extraction, the pipeline threatens to pollute freshwater supplies in America’s agricultural heartland and increase emissions in already-polluted communities of the Gulf Coast. The diluted bitumen that Keystone XL would carry is a highly toxic, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate that increases the damage from spills and the risk to communities along the pipeline’s path. The U.S. portion of TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline spilled fourteen times in its first year of operation. A spill from the Keystone XL poses an even greater threat, given that the pipeline would run directly through the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies one-third of our nation’s ground water used for irrigation, and drinking water to 2 million citizens.

In June, President Obama mentioned the Keystone XL pipeline in his historic climate speech. He said that the Keystone XL pipeline would not be found in the nation’s interest if it is found that it will “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  Opponents of the project were thrilled to hear him lay out this climate-based test for the project’s approval, since  – the evidence is clear:  Keystone XL will significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution, and therefore must be rejected.

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tar sands The Trouble with Tar Sands

Obtaining oil from tar sands is an energy-intensive process with severe ecological impacts. Tar sands are a mix of sand, clay, water, and dense petroleum known as bitumen. The tar sands are generally extracted in one of two methods. Strip mining involves the clear cutting of large areas of critical forest habitat, requires up to four barrels of water per barrel of bitumen extracted, and has to date created 65 square miles of toxic waste lakes which serve as death traps for migratory birds and rapidly leach into the Athabasca River and Watershed. The other method, “in situ” drilling, essentially involves pumping steam into the ground for several months to turn the earth into an oven and melt out the bitumen. It may look less destructive, but in fact, it fragments even larger swaths of habitat and requires a tremendous amount of energy to produce enough steam. This dirty fuel also contains, on average, 11 times more sulfur, 11 times more nickel, 6 times more nitrogen, and 5 times more lead than conventional oil. These pollutants are harmful to human health causing lung and respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis. The metals found in tar sands are neurotoxic, and are leeching at alarming rates into the Athabasca River and watershed. Indigenous communities downstream are suffering with surprisingly high rates of cancer, including several rare cancers that have been linked to petroleum products. Refining tar sands also releases pollutants linked to acid rain, smog, and haze and will exacerbate impacts on nearby communities that are already burdened by multiple sources of pollutants. Processing and burning oil from tar sands creates 20 percent more global warming pollution than conventional oil.

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Sources for background text :

Natural Resources Defense Council Fuel Facts: Say No to Tar Sands Pipeline

Sierra Club Fact Sheet: Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Photo 1: Shadia Fayne Wood, Tar Sands Action/flickr

Photo 2: David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

Please contact Marie Risalvato mrisalvato@climatenetwork.org

for more information or to add resources to this page.

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Tar Sands Solutions Network

For the most up-to-date resources related to tar sands and to get involved in tar sands actions, visit the Tar Sands Solutions Network.

 
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