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Using Alberta's oil sands

Two days before Christmas, President Obama signed a payroll tax cut extension bill that forces him to decide on the controversial TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days. The Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil from the huge Alberta oil sands reservoir (it’s oil not tar) to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma and Illinois. This is a major issue for those concerned with the health of the earth’s lands and waters. The President is caught between two opposing groups.

Environmentalists contend that both production of heavy oil in Alberta and its transport by pipeline risks devastating the environment. They cite the comments of James Hansen, perhaps the world’s leading climatologist, that green house gas (GHG) emissions from production of the entire oil sands deposit would be “game over’ for the world’s climate.

Labor unions and the energy industry contend that the whole process is safe, and that the $7 billion dollar pipeline project will create thousands of jobs, boost the economy, and provide a needed source of oil from a friendly country. Emotions are running high, and as usual the truth lies between the two extremes.

The Alberta oil sands were an enormous conventional oil reservoir which lacked a capping layer. The oil slowly migrated upward and became mixed with sand and dirt nearer the surface. In the process, the lighter oil compounds either evaporated or were eaten by microbes, leaving behind a heavy oil residue called bitumen. To produce it, forest is cleared, the bitumen laden dirt is scooped up, and the bitumen separated from the dirt. When mixed with condensate, a liquid gas/oil compound, the bitumen, now called dilbit, will flow in a pipeline. The whole oil sands production process releases more green house gases (GHG) than conventional oil drilling.

The still heavy dilbit requires extra high pressure to move through the pipeline, and it is also more acidic and corrosive than conventional oil. This creates greater danger of pipeline leaks with risks to ground water aquifers such as the Ogallala, over which the pipeline will pass.

In response, TransCanada notes that existing dilbit pipelines are operating safely. This includes the Alberta Clipper pipeline which brings dilbit from Alberta to Minnesota’s Pine Bend refinery, the source of most of Minnesota’s gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuel. TransCanada has agreed to adopt 57 project-specific special conditions for design, construction, and operation of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Albertans love their lands and waters, and they are capable of guarding those assets without our help. Alberta’s government monitors all aspects of oil sands production. The province of Alberta has 147,000 square miles of boreal forest. A total area of 1,850 square miles is set aside for oil sands surface mining. As of January, just 275 square miles have been disturbed. Producers are required to restore disturbed land and make deposits to a fund guaranteeing restoration. That fund now totals $900 million.  Water usage is limited by a law requiring that existing and approved oil projects may not use more than a total of 3 percent of the annual average flow of the Athabasca River, the primary area water source. Water in the region is continually monitored to assure that it meets Alberta’s strong standards for toxins.

As to GHGs, 80 percent of the emissions come from end use burning of the gasoline or diesel made from the crude; those emissions are the same for conventional and oil sands oil. So that the overall so-called well to wheel difference is small.  Hansen’s numbers for GHG emissions from the entire Alberta resource are true. But at 3 million barrels per day, the target for 2018 oil sands production, it would be at least the year 4,000 before that much oil could be produced and consumed. If world oil demand continues unabated for that long, we have major climate problems with or without Alberta and the KeystoneXL pipeline. At present, all Canadian oil sands operations account for one tenth of one percent of world green house gas emissions.

We need serious carbon tax and fuel conservation measures to reduce fossil fuel consumption. But pipelines will remain the best way to transport oil and gas, our major energy fuel source for decades to come.

ROLF WESTGARD Rolf Westgard is a resident of Deerwood. He will teach the Spring Quarter class, “Science in the News” for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program.