Points of View: Pipelines and Oil Sands

oil sands

Oil sands are mixtures of oil, clay, sand, and water. Many large deposits of oil sands are located in Canada.

The world needs oil. Oil is best known for its use as a fuel, but it also is used to make plastics, lubricants, and many chemicals. For decades, oil has been inexpensive and has been treated as an almost inexhaustible resource.

In the past decade, people have become more aware of the limited supplies of easily obtainable oil. Also, conflicts in oil-producing areas have limited supplies. Oil prices have skyrocketed. The price and new technologies have made it economically worthwhile to extract oil from places where it was once too expensive or too difficult to access.

Tar sands, which are also called oil sands, are one example of hard-to-get oil that is now being extracted. The oil from tar sands cannot be pumped out of the ground in the same way as in drilling operations. This is because the oil is very viscous and is mixed with clay, sand, and water. To access some oil sand deposits, huge mines must be dug that remove all of soils above the deposits. Then the oil and sediment mixture is extracted before the oil is separated. About two tons of sand are needed to produce one barrel of oil. This type of mining is very expensive and environmentally destructive, compared with other methods of extracting oil. New technologies are allowing oil to be extracted from deeper deposits.

There currently is debate about whether oil sands should be mined at all. The debate became even more intense in 2011 and 2012 because of a proposed pipeline—the Keystone XL pipeline—that would link the oil sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. The Obama administration denied the permit to build the pipeline in 2012, but there are plans to submit a proposal for a similar pipeline that will take a different route.

The Case for the Pipeline
Supporters of the pipeline argue that the environmental impacts are outweighed by the creation of jobs and the enhancement of national security. Canada and the United States have been close trading partners and have been on good terms for decades. The same cannot be said of oil producers in the Middle East that supply much of the oil used in the United States. Also, political instability in the Middle East could compromise U.S. access to adequate oil supplies.

The refineries in Texas where the pipeline would terminate are built to refine oil from low-quality starting products, such as the oil sands. Although these refineries are already near capacity, a pipeline would bring a reliable supply of oil to them, and they would not have to import oil via tanker ships from other parts of the world.

The other argument for the pipeline is that it would create many jobs, both in Canada and the United States. Although there is disagreement over the numbers, there could be thousands to tens of thousands of jobs created to manufacture parts for and build the pipeline.

Finally, supporters of the pipeline suggest that the oil sands will be developed, regardless of what happens with the pipeline, because of increasing global demand for energy. Not building the pipeline will only deny jobs in the United States, supporters argue. Supporters also indicate that there are continuing efforts to make oil extraction from the Alberta oil sands more environmentally friendly.

river clean-up

Workers clean up along the Kalamazoo river in Michigan after a pipeline oil spill.

The Case Against the Pipeline
Arguments against the pipeline fall into two major categories: concerns over using the oil sands at all and concerns about the pipeline’s route through environmentally sensitive areas.

Many scientists and environmentalists are very concerned that the development and use of the oil sands will have dire consequences for climate change. One climate scientist from NASA has stated that making full use of the oil sands would make it impossible to avoid significant and very damaging climate change, because of the huge amount of oil in the oil sands. Others claim that having this additional oil available would keep fuel prices low, which would slow efforts to switch to clean energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Most of the climate impact comes from the burning of oil. However, the production of liquid fuels from oil sands produces more greenhouse gases than production from standard oil.

The second major worry is about the pipeline itself. Oil spills happen along pipelines and have the potential to contaminate important habitats, including rivers and underground water supplies (aquifers). Along an existing pipeline from Canada to the Midwest of the United States there have been 14 spills, including one in 2011. Also in 2011, there were oil spills from oil sands pipelines into the Yellowstone River in Montana and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed to cross a portion of Nebraska above the Ogallala Aquifer. This 174,000-mi2 aquifer provides drinking and irrigation water for portions of many western states. Studies suggest that a spill could contaminate huge areas of the aquifer and disrupt drinking water supplies. This concern was largely responsible for the Obama administration’s rejection of the pipeline permit.

Finally, opponents to the pipeline question the number of jobs that might be created. In addition, some labor groups in Canada oppose the pipeline because they think the majority of environmental damage may be done in Canada, while the majority of jobs created will be in the United States.

What Do You Think?