Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline

Overview article, from Rolling Stone magazine:

This article gives a good overview of why there is so much controversy.

— The pipeline would be good news for Big Oil: TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, has already spent nearly $2 billion buying land and parts for the project…. the pipeline would nearly double revenue from the tar sands, to $3.9 billion a year.

— The pipeline would be bad news for the planet: The amount of carbon locked up in the tar sands – 230 billion tons – would be more than enough, if burned, to spike global warming to catastrophic levels.


Wouldn’t the pipeline create a lot of jobs? In short, no.

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put it last week as it announced its support: “The $7 billion project is expected to create more than 20,000 jobs during the manufacturing and construction phases.”

The original State Department review, however, found that the actual number would be 5,000 at best. And Cornell University found that the pipeline could create closer to 3,500 temporary jobs, and these would be offset by job losses that the pipeline would create by raising gas prices across the Midwest.

The Transport Workers Union said it would just help perpetuate our dependence on oil, pushing back the time when we could create “hundreds of thousands of new jobs in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, developing alternative fuels and energy sources, and maintaining and expanding public transportation jobs that can help us reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.”

In addition, Rolling Stone reports that “the State Department estimated that once Keystone was finished, the number of permanent pipeline jobs could be as few as 50.”

Spills: will the pipeline be safe?

Spills, in fact, are all too common on the nation’s pipelines: Since 1990, according to federal regulators, there have been at least 100 “significant” spills on pipelines every year that have released 110 million gallons of hazardous waste. The Keystone I had so many spills – a dozen in its first year alone – that it had to be temporarily shut down. Last July, a pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy dumped nearly a million gallons of tar sand sludge into the Kalamazoo River. Estimated cleanup costs: $700 million.


Are there any practical alternatives? Where will the world’s energy come from, if not from petroleum?

Paul Krugman says: We’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

A TreeHugger article says: ‘Grid parity’ = the point where a particular form of renewable energy becomes as cheap to generate as the market standard in a given region. In a handful of places around the world (Italy and Germany among them) it’s already happening.

Photos, videos and books

Greenpeace (2.14 minutes)  This provides a quick short look at what the extraction of bitumen from Alberta Tar Sands looks like.

Oil Story (animation 2.32 minutes)   Fun look at dirty oil.

Dirty Oil – Introduction (part of a series: 3.31 minutes). Includes Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute.

Dirty Oil – Trailer (for a feature film on Alberta Tar Sands)  The full documentary is a behind-the-scenes look “into the strip-mined world of Alberta, Canada, where the vast and toxic Tar Sands deposit supplies the U.S. with the majority of its oil.”

Also see Wikipedia – Athabasca oil sands  for details on history, production, transportation, governance, oil companies involved, economics, Indigenous peoples, and a good map of the potential area involved in extraction.  For a stark view, take a look at pictures of Tar Sands from Space.

Nikiforuk, Andrew, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, David Suzuki Foundation, Greystone Books, 2008.  pp 207  “Tar Sands is a wake-up call not just to Canadians but to the wider world to take a serious look at what is happening in northern Alberta.” – Margaret MacMillan.



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