Oil sands, pipeline leaks and loss of sovereignty

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Canada has 178 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, 95 percent of which are Alberta oil sand deposits. Ninety-nine percent of Canadian oil is exported to the United States.

Oil sands consist of bitumen, a heavy, viscous type of crude oil. If covered with a relatively thin layer of soil, it can be extracted from the ground via open pit mining. Roughly 80 percent of the bitumen will have to be recovered by extraction wells.

Bitumen can be sold raw and sent to specialized refineries for processing. Another approach is to add imported light oil to thin it sufficiently to ship via pipelines to existing refineries.

Oil sands are expensive to process, requiring at least $30 per barrel to be profitable. They require massive amounts of water and natural gas, and provide only three barrels of oil for every barrel of oil equivalency used. Their processing releases three times as much CO2 as traditional processing.

They are expected to become an increasingly important energy source for the United States and global oil supplies despite their high energy and environmental impacts.

The expansion of oil sands production has stimulated the expansion of two major pipelines into the United States: Embridge and Kinder Morgan Canada. Embridge maintains pipeline connections to the Great Lakes region including Chicago. After processing, some of the oil is shipped from Chicago to Cushing, Okla., and some is shipped back to Canada to dilute raw bitumen so it can be shipped to Chicago for processing. Another Embridge pipeline will link Chicago to Houston.

Kinder Morgan Canada ships tar sands oil from Hardisty, Canada, to Casper, Wyo., and on to Wood River, Ill. Another pipeline near Wood River links Patoka, Ill., to Cushing, Okla.

The Enbridge pipeline has been in the news recently when leaks were reported in Romeoville, Ill., and Marshall, Mich. With an expanded pipeline system, an increase in environmentally damaging leaks appears inevitable.

The most serious environmental impacts arise from mining and in-situ processing of bitumen in the Canadian oil sands. Water consumption and contamination, the impact of massive tailing ponds, combined with increased carbon emissions from natural gas consumption and the eventual disturbance of a land mass and forest cover equivalent in size to Florida, are major concerns.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is concerned about social and political implications of the tar sands projects, which they characterize as a corporate effort to scale down government regulations and controls that protect societal interests. Corporate interests are seen as preemptively removing the ability of governments to control the massive supply of energy, land, water and labor needed in the tar sands.

Native populations see their traditional way of life being destroyed by the developments, and have filed lawsuits to protect their interests. They are concerned that plans to ship oil across the Rocky Mountains to ports in British Columbia for global markets will extensively damage their salmon fisheries.

To serve the continued expansion of the oil sands projects, a series of north-south running superhighways are contemplated to connect Edmonton to the Texas Gulf Coast for supplies and cheap labor from Mexico and China since labor shortages are expected to increase as the development expands.

Some critics have characterized the oil sands projects as an extreme effort by North American governments to maintain our oil-dependent economies. Others see its development as a sign of peaking in conventional oil supplies, which will eventually cause major reductions in our energy consumption and force major economic changes. They recommend we use our dwindling energy resources to transition to a sustainable energy system based on conservation, efficiency, localization and renewable energy sources.

From the Sept. 22-28, 2010 issue

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