Keystone XL: Are Oil Sands a Solution or a Bandage? Part II

By Carolina Luna

Here’s a link to Keystone XL: Part I

Continued from last month’s issue of Nvate, Keystone XL is a proposed crude oil pipeline that would span nearly 2,000 miles and stretch from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. This month’s issue focuses on the creation of jobs, consequences of an oil spill and suggested alternatives to the pipeline. To get the whole story, read May’s issue, wherein you will learn about the environmental impact that processing the oil has on Canadian forests and indigenous people.

Keystone XL Job Creation and the Energy Crisis

According to TransCanada, the Keystone XL pipeline will create valuable jobs and provide energy security for America. They state that the proposed pipeline will generate up to 20,000 high-paying jobs and 118,000 direct jobs across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. “Local economies within the route,” states TransCanada, “will benefit from increases in tax revenues and business activity associated with temporary construction work in the area, and local property taxes will be paid on a continuing basis.” A recent study by Cornell University’s Industrial Labor Relations School and the Global Labor Institute found discrepancies in these figures, figures which are based on a documented study by the Perryman Group. The Perryman Group’s study provides no details about the data they used, except that these figures came from TransCanada. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of State, the proposed pipeline will bring about 6,000 direct jobs over three years, but most will be non-local and temporary.

Map of trans canada keystone XL pipeline

According to the Consumer Energy Alliance, a nonpartisan organization yet affiliated with the oil industry, “the Keystone XL pipeline…will carry 700,000 barrels of North American crude oil to U.S. refineries everyday—helping to displace nearly half of the oil these refineries currently import from Venezuela and the Middle East and boosting [the United States’] energy and economic security in the process.” The proposed pipeline will deliver crude oil to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, and the biggest refinery in the region is owned by Motive Enterprises, a company that is 50 percent controlled by Saudi Aramco, a Saudi Arabian state-owned oil company. Therefore, TransCanada most likely will not be carrying barrels of crude oil to American refineries, but instead, to oil refineries that are foreign-owned. According to Cornell’s study, the proposed pipeline will divert tar sands oil from Midwest refineries to the Gulf Coast thus increasing gas prices. It is estimated that in the Midwest gas prices will increase 10 to 20 cents per gallon.

What if the Keystone XL Spills?

In the summer of 2010, a 30-inch Enbridge pipeline broke releasing about 819,000 gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The pipeline was shut down after 12 hours. More than a year after the spill, 37 miles of water and 80 hectares of wetlands were still contaminated with the tar sands oil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reported that more than 1 million gallons of oil have been collected from the spill. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the remaining oil at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River “is not expected to cause cancer or other long-term problems,” but only minor problems like skin irritation. Yet, University of A Coruña, Spain, professor Francisco Aguilera, researched the effects of oil exposure from major oil spills in the last 20 years on human health and found that people who were exposed reported itchy eyes, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and throat and respiratory problems.

Trans canada keystone xl oil pipeline protest signs

Another problem is the weakening of pipelines. In a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, in conjunction with the Pembina Institute and the Living Oceans Society, it was found that overtime pipelines that carry tar sands oil are prone to weakening because it carries a bitumen blend that contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes. In addition, these pipelines are operated under high temperatures and pressure in order to move the thick and heavy bitumen through the pipe. According to TransCanada, “pipelines are the safest method for the transportation of petroleum products when compared to other methods of transportation. Steel pipelines provide the safest, most efficient and most economical way to transport crude oil.” With that said, TransCanada’s 30-inch Keystone Phase 1 pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Patoka, Ill., had 35 leaks in its first year of operation—21 were in Canada and 14 in the U.S., according to a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Alternatives to Unconventional Fossil Fuels

According to NASA scientist James Hansen, “Policymakers need to understand that…unconventional fossil fuels, which are as dirty and polluting as coal, must be left in the ground if we wish future generations to have a livable planet,” Hansen said in his book, “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.” The U.S. has a serious dependency with fossil fuels, especially with petroleum. Oil is used to make thousands of things such as pesticides, fertilizers, ballet tights, nylon zippers, umbrellas and ballpoint pens, but it is especially important for transportation. American consumers want lower prices at the pump and unfortunately, unconventional forms of crude oil will not lower gas prices.

An alternative to tar sands oil might be biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel. These fuels are made from biomass materials and are usually mixed with gasoline or diesel fuel, but they can also be used without it. Ethanol and biodiesel, however, are sometimes more expensive than fossil fuels, but they produce fewer air pollutants. Yet, some people and organizations oppose the use of biofuels because it threatens biodiversity and redirects farmland for biofuel production.

Ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from the sugars found in grains like corn, sugar cane and barley. In the U.S., ethanol is made mostly from corn and during the fermentation process coal and natural gas are used. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “about 99 percent of the fuel ethanol consumed in the U.S. is added to gasoline in mixtures of up to 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.” Pure ethanol is non toxic and biodegradable, and if spilled it can rapidly break down without harming the environment. But like gasoline, ethanol is highly flammable thus it must be transported carefully. Moreover, those who oppose ethanol argue that instead of using land, fertilizers and energy on biofuel crops it can be used to grow food crops.

Biodiesel, on the other hand, is a fuel that is made either from vegetable oils, fats or greases. The neat part about biodiesel is that it can be used in all diesel engines without the hassle of changing them. Biodiesel is considered to be carbon-neutral, meaning it balances the amount of carbon it releases with an equal offset amount. The downside of using biodiesel is that some parts of the world’s forests have been cleared and burned to make room for the cultivation of soybeans and palm oil trees for the production of biodiesel. Clearing forests can have a greater negative impact on the environment than using biodiesel produced from plants.

Global network, Friends of the Earth believe one alternative to tar sands oil is public transportation, but they are unwilling to comment if they believe Americans will make the commitment to switch from driving their cars to taking public transportation. In the meantime, President Barack Obama approved TransCanada’s Phase 3 of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Gulf Coast Project, according to an article published by CNN. This phase of the pipeline will stretch from Cushing, Okla., to Nederland, Texas. The pipeline is expected to transport about 700,000 barrels of oil per day, thus extending America’s long-term dependency to unconventional crude oils.

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