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Guest post: Keystone XL? It’s Not an Environmental Question

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Keystone XL is the lesser of two evils. The other evil, is not building Keystone XL.  This argument – to build, or not to build the transcontinental pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast – is a heated one. Classic. Environment verses humans. The earth versus polluters.

But, in this debate, we have forgotten something fundamental. The bulk of carbon emissions do not come from oil companies. They do not come from refineries, and they most certainly do not come from pipelines.

So where do they come from?

They come from you. They come from me. Americans emit an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide because we consume vast quantities of fossil fuel based energy (mostly by driving cars and using electricity). The average American emits roughly 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year – five times the global average. If we want to reduce these emissions, there are lots of ways to go about it, but the anti-Keystone movement is simply a distraction. The protestors of Keystone XL have the right intentions, but they are firing their arrows at the wrong target.

Here is a little analogy: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This group wants to decrease drunk driving deaths. How should they do that? Go after drunk drivers obviously. But if they were to follow the “stop the pipeline” protest model, it would be as if they went after Buick. But only Buick, and put them out of business. Would drunk driving deaths go down? No! It’s insane to think they would. People would just buy Fords or BMWs instead, and the drinkers would still drink. To stop drunk driving, you have to go after the drunks, not the car companies. To reduce carbon emissions, you have to go after the emitters, not the suppliers of energy.

Let’s be absolutely clear: blocking Keystone XL will not reduce carbon emissions because it will not cause Americans to use less oil. Last year, the Department of Energy contracted a neutral third party, Ensys (which used EIA data), to characterize the emissions, economic and supply impacts of building or not building this pipeline. According to the Ensys Keystone XL Report:

“The results show no significant change in total U.S. refining activity, total crude and product import volumes and costs, in global refinery CO2 and total life-cycle GHG emissions whether Keystone XL is built or not.”

Recently, I spoke with some of the protestors in front of the White House to learn more about why they oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. In our discussions, a valid point was brought up – that the oil sands fields are one of the biggest producible carbon stores in the world (they call them ‘carbon bombs’) and  it would be best for the environment if they are never produced at all. This is true, it would be best for the climate if we stopped using all types of fossil fuels, including oil sands. But here is the problem: We can block a pipeline from Canada, but we can’t stop Canada from producing its own oil.

Canada already produces almost two million barrels of oil per day from oil sands (National Energy Board of Canada – www.neb-one.gc.ca) and they aren’t going to just stop doing it because America says no to this pipeline. If the Keystone XL pipeline is blocked, TransCanada can just build a pipeline to the west coast of British Columbia and use tankers to move the oil to Asia. (By the way, they already have a major pipeline to the west coast – The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, and almost a dozen other major pipelines that come into the United States). You might argue, ‘Environmentalists in Canada will stop that pipeline.’ No they won’t. Pipelines and massive oil sands operations already exist. Keystone XL did not meet significant resistance in Canada, and as long as it is routed correctly, neither will a pipeline to the coast. The oil sands are an incredible source of jobs and revenue for Canada, and they will find a way to route the pipeline that does not meet untenable political resistance.

Just like Canada will keep producing, we will keep importing. If we don’t import from Canada, we will import more oil from the Middle East or Africa. The same amount of oil will be produced and consumed globally either way, but in the ‘no Keystone’ case, the oil will just have to travel farther, which could mean more carbon emissions because of transportation. The previously referenced Ensys report also mentions that,

“Together, growing Canadian oil sands imports and U.S. demand reduction have the potential to very substantially reduce U.S. dependency on non-Canadian foreign oil, including from the Middle East.”

Furthermore, we are lucky to get the oil. Canada already exports to Asia, where the market is actually cheaper to access. That is because to export from Canada to China, the required pipeline will be much shorter than to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and pipelines are very expensive (About $1 million per mile). As it was put in the Ensys Keystone XL Report:

“costs for transporting [Canadian oil sands] crudes to major markets in northeast Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) via pipeline and tanker are lower than to transport the same crudes via pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

There is valid concern over pipelines crossing sensitive areas, including aquifers. The pipeline should be routed so that any potential spill will have the least impact possible, as small spills should be expected to occur occasionally. However, the odds that oil spilled from a pipeline will actually contaminate an aquifer are low, and pipeline spills tend to be much less severe than tanker spills. The bottom line is this: if we don’t build a pipeline over land, the alternative to ship, in tankers, across oceans. The pipeline is the less risky environmental choice.

For the record, I believe very strongly that we need to reduce carbon emissions. The quickest, easiest, least expensive, least disruptive way to reduce carbon emissions is to stop using so much energy. Stop driving, turn off your air conditioner. If we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, we have to get serious about using less energy and using it more efficiently. Blocking Keystone XL will not get us any closer to solving the climate problem.

So here is the question: Do we want to import more oil from the Middle East, increase the risk of spilling millions of gallons of oil into the sea, alienate Canada, our biggest trade partner, and do nothing about worldwide carbon emissions? If the answer is yes, then stop the pipeline.

Photo credit:

1. Photo of Keystone Protestor in Washington, DC in October 7, 2011 by ElvertBarnes and used under this Creative Commons License.

About the author:

Scott McNally has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas. He has worked as an Environmental Engineer for Valero Energy Corporation, a Project Engineer for Shell Oil Company, and an energy and climate research intern for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. This is Scott’s first guest blog post at Plugged In – he was invited to be a guest blogger by Plugged In’s Melissa C. Lott. You can reach Scott via e-mail at scottmcnally at gmail dot com.

About the Author: Plugged In Guest Author - An energy research engineer who has worked in oil and gas, environmental engineering, renewable energy, and energy and environmental policy for the Obama Administration.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. EricMJohnson 10:12 am 11/29/2011

    As you point out, everyone who has studied the looming climate crisis understands that reducing fossil fuel consumption is necessary if we want to prevent a humanitarian disaster. However, if I might play devil’s advocate, I would suggest that your analogy about Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) targeting Buick isn’t an accurate representation of the strategy that groups such as 360.org are using.

    The Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline and is intended to allow Valero Energy to expand exports to Europe and Latin America. The pipeline is merely enabling the oil economy without necessarily benefitting US consumers. In this sense, a better analogy would be if MADD were targeting a specific liquor company, something they did in 1996 when Seagram’s began advertising hard liquor on network television. The campaign wasn’t going to reduce the amount of alcohol on the market, but was intended to prevent a company from expanding its influence and that of its product.

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  2. 2. scottmcnally 4:45 pm 11/29/2011

    Eric, thank you for your comment.
    You are right, Keystone is an export pipeline, but for Canada, not for the U.S.
    The pipeline is not intended for Valero to increase exports, and will not be the reason that they do. Valero will increase refined product exports because they have made capital investments in the equipment required to process heavier oil, it has nothing to do with Keystone. Keystone merely allows access to another source. If they can’t get oil from Canada, they will import it from overseas, and a fraction of the refined products will be exported again, but most of it will stay here. Invariably, some of the tar sands refined in the gulf coast will be converted to products that will be exported (mostly diesel to Europe), but most of it will enter domestic markets as gasoline or chemical feedstocks. This is business as usual. Refiners purchase crude, and sell the products wherever they can.

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  3. 3. MoEnergySci 10:03 pm 11/29/2011

    Feels like this is another case of:
    1) Why we need to stop focusing on tiny pieces of our energy problems and instead
    2) Look at the fundamental big picture shifts that need to occur if we want to choose to change things like our dependence on fossil fuels (and fossil fuel imports)

    How about we find a way to let oil companies make money off of good (from an environmental perspective) things and then run with that? Any good ideas to create this kind of business environment?

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  4. 4. mrhyman 10:23 am 12/1/2011

    A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review is most concerned with the environmental effects of the pipeline. This should require a consideration of all of the alternatives to building the pipeline for aquiring sources of energy for transportation. Although most transportation energy in the United States comes from oil at present, alternatives such as corn ethanol (an imperfect option) are already on the market. The Obama administration has also committed itself to the promotion of alternatives such as electric vehicles.
    Any investment by Canadian or American companies in one form of transportation energy will likely preclude some investment in another form. In particular, investment in the Keystone XL pipeline will futher what is known as “carbon lock-in,” a dependence on fossil fuels. While it is important for end-users to reduce consumption, it is also important to begin investments in long-term infrastructure for cleaner energy. Capital investmentments such as oil pipelines have long lifetimes which require payback, discouraging investment in clean energy alternatives.
    A thorough NEPA analysis should thus consider alternative energy investments and carbon lock-in. Whether the outcome of the review would rule in favor of the pipeline, the pipeline with more end-user efficiency, or denial of the pipeline I cannot say, but I certainly have my own prejudice.

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  5. 5. outsidethebox 10:58 am 12/1/2011

    This oil is going to be burned in China or in the United States – there’s no getting around that. The US has stronger anti-pollution laws than does China. So how does it help the worldwide environment to burn it in China?

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  6. 6. scottmcnally 11:13 am 12/1/2011

    Mr. Hyman, thank you for your comment.
    You are right, we should be making capital investments in more sustainable energy systems, I agree. The question is, who is going to do it? Private companies will only invest if it is profitable, and investments by the government are largely up to congress, so it may not happen quickly. Regardless, it will take decades for alternatives to make meaningful reductions to oil consumption. So for now, we are stuck with oil. The question becomes: Where do we want to get our oil from?

    As far as NEPA goes, the NEPA analysis requires a robust review of the environmental impacts and alternatives analysis of the pipeline, but only the pipeline. It would not include big picture national renewable energy investment scenarios and carbon lock-in, because it is way outside of the scope of what TransCanada is capable of. Building a wind farm is not a reasonable alternative for TransCanada, and TransCanada certainly has no influence on end user efficiency.

    I’m glad you brought up Carbon lock-in. It is an interesting concept, and this pipeline may or may not contribute, depending on the contracts TransCanada signs with refiners on the Gulf Coast. TransCanada is taking a risk by building it, and there is no guarantee that they will have customers. If alternatives become so sucessful that oil can no longer compete, this pipeline will go unused, and TransCanada will take a loss.
    You could also make the argument that building roads is a form of carbon lock-in, because every time you build a road, you are not using that money to build more efficient public transit, and those NEPA analyses don’t require the scale of alternative analysis that you suggested.
    You make intersting points though, thanks again for your comment.

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  7. 7. christineottery 11:23 am 12/1/2011

    I agree with Eric – and I think your argument about Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a massive straw man. It’s not a logical comparison to make.

    It is the demand from the US that is driving the tar sands destruction. People don’t just supply stuff without a demand for the product. Getting rid of Buicks probably wouldn’t affect drunk driving, but limiting the capacity to supply tar sands crude to the US could affect production.

    Secondly, the issue with tar sands is not only about CO2 – it is also about the pollution of water, air, and the destruction of ecologically valuable Boreal forest.

    And also, I would question whether the EIA data is complete? Extracting crude from bitumen sand and clay is more energy intensive than from oil wells. Studies of the data – such as this one by a Stanford Academic – https://circabc.europa.eu/d/d/workspace/SpacesStore/db806977-6418-44db-a464-20267139b34d/Brandt_Oil_Sands_GHGs_Final.pdf state that tar sands create about 23 per cent more emissions.

    So, although I take your point about taking responsibility for our personal carbon footprints, I have to disagree that the tar sands are a good thing in general.

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  8. 8. scottmcnally 11:28 am 12/1/2011

    MoEnergy – absolutely. Right now, clean energy is too expensive, and dirty energy is too cheap. We can do two things:
    1. Make clean energy cheaper
    2. Make dirty energy more expensive

    The federal gas tax is only 18 cents per gallon. We could increase the gas tax (option 2) and use that revenue to invest in clean energy (option 1). I can’t see that happening with a Republican house though.

    OutsidetheBox – Your right. It doesn’t help, but China will buy from elsewhere and burn oil anyway. I don’t know if there is much we can do about that.

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  9. 9. sault 11:52 am 12/1/2011

    Just to extract and upgrade the tar sand bitumen into a refinable crude oil product requires an amount of natural gas that has 25% of the energy content of the crude oil. So for every 4 units of energy in a barrel of tar sands crude, they already had to burn 1 unit of natural gas just to produce it.

    Then it still needs to be shipped to the refinery and refined into petrochemicals, using still more energy. Just the ELECTRICITY used to refine a gallon of gasoline could power an electric car as far, if not farther than, that gallon of gasoline would in a regular car. Since a gasoline (or diesel)- powered car throws away 70 – 80% of the energy in its fuel as waste heat, the Tar Sands’ USABLE Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) is close to, or below 1, so it takes tremendous expenditures of energy to make this dirty fuel possible. And we want to build a pipeline to make it easier to burn the stuff?

    These tar sands operations still have huge sludge waste ponds from their extraction and upgrading operations that sit perilously close to the pristine rivers and boreal forests of the region. They need to regularly set off small artillery pieces to frighten away migratory birds since landing in the sludge is a quick death sentence. That alone should tell you how bad this waste can be.

    It would be much better just to burn the natural gas in power plants to charge electric cars. We’ll get way more usable energy out of the deal and we won’t get polluted groundwater or even “temporary” sludge ponds up in Canada either. To top it all off, we’ll also get steadily improving air quality as zero-emissions electric cars displace gas/diesel cars that would have been fueled by Tar Sands crude.

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  10. 10. scottmcnally 11:56 am 12/1/2011

    Christine – You don’t have to disagree. The surface disruption from oil sands production is quite dramatic, the water consumption is very high, and the destruction of boreal forest is bad, especially if it is permanant (it doesn’t have to be). These issues need to be managed carefully. I support conservation, efficiency and renewables above all else. Unfortunately, we have an incredible demand for oil, and it has to come from somewhere.

    Limiting US imports of tar sands could limit tar sands production in Canada, you are right, but it would cause oil production elsewhere to go up. Yes, the associated carbon emissions from tar sands production is sometimes higher, but the transport emissions is lower than other options, so its a wash.

    In fact, currently, the production emissions from much of the tar sands operations is actually lower than most sources. This is very suprising, but here is why:
    The raw sands have to be upgraded by a processes called distilling and coking. This produces two main products: light oil, and coke. Coke is chemically similar to coal, very high in carbon content. Currently, the market for coke in Canada is weak, so most of the coke is buried back in the pits. That carbon is sequestered. As a result, oil from tar sands ultimately has lower emissions than most other sources.

    Tar sands production without sequestration does have 23% higher emissions. But since much of the carbon is sequestered, and the oil doesn’t have to travel as far, the carbon emissions are on par with conventionals.

    All valid concerns, thank you for commenting.

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  11. 11. JosephPallant 12:03 pm 12/1/2011

    Amongst the varied arguments put forth in this article, I seek to correct one factual error. There is significant environmental pushback against the Northern Gateway pipeline, and the tanker traffic that would result from this. A BC provincial ferry ran aground and sank in the confined, rough waters of the proposed tanker route a few years ago and it is fresh in people’s minds. The has been a federal moratorium on tanker traffic off the north coast for 30 years, and though the current federal government is keen to lift this, it gives you a taste of the current situation.

    Scott’s assertion that “as long as it is routed correctly, neither will a pipeline to the coast” raise objection may be factually true, but does not mesh with geography. Most folks here in British Columbia, the province that the pipeline must cross from Alberta to get to the sea, can’t figure out how you could get a pipeline “routed correctly” so that it wouldn’t cross hundreds of streams and rivers that feed the Fraser and other major salmon rivers, putting the whole shooting match at risk. 61 First Nations (FYI – our commonly used term for Canadian Indians) signed on to oppose the pipeline feel the same way. You can gain a little Made in BC take on the situation at http://www.thetyee.ca -short link at http://ow.ly/7Liqr

    I’ll point out that this is not a radical agenda, continuing a long standing moratorium on tankers. Canadian Parliament voted to formalize and continue this ban just last year. Moms, dads, kids, students, First Nations, business people and fishermen all see this pipeline can’t go ahead. Though I can’t quote the exact poll, reportedly 80% of British Columbians oppose the pipeline.

    So USA, and Nebraskans, just know that there are millions of Canadians that do not agree with our federal government’s position on Tarsands, pipelines and Keystone XL. And don’t buy that a pipeline through BC is a done deal.

    Don’t feel that you have to take the oil without a peep, ‘ cause it’ll just go somewhere else otherwise. This is a false dichotomy set up to divide and conquer. Nebraskans are already seeing this with Trans Canada “hopping to” to re-route the pipeline around the Sand Hills and the Aquifer. If the need for oil, and the inevitability of the tar sands extraction is for real, we as citizens have the responsibility to push for vast improvements to the process.

    The question for you is, given your own beliefs, experience and pragmatism, what can you push for in the world that will start solving the problems you see around you. For some people that will be homelessness. For some, their own family. For others, a functional climate and sustainable resource use might be the key. For a growing number, that means sorting out this oil sands issue right now, because it ain’t going away.

    If you can take a pause, dig deep into your heart and choose your path, I have a feeling we can get this world on the right track.

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  12. 12. Smurfcrusher 12:59 pm 12/1/2011

    Actually the author is missing key economic principles. The way to reduce consumption is to increase price. Increasing the price of oil makes alternative energy more viable.
    The pipeline project exists because it will allow oil to reach customers more efficiently.
    Therefore, not building the pipeline, and other projects which brong oil to consumers, is of course a viable strategy to use market principles to reduce oil consumption.
    Given the author has experience on the industry, I’m surprised this basic truth ses to have escaped hom.

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  13. 13. Smurfcrusher 1:07 pm 12/1/2011

    Also missing is a basic discussion of carbon used to heat the sands and processing the material into usable product. Compare carbon dioxide emitted per ton of crude for the Middle East versus Canadian tar sands and you’ll see FAR more carbon dioxide is produced per barrel for tar sand production, per unit oil than from other sources. Even though the latter can involve shipping thousands of ocean miles.

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  14. 14. Smurfcrusher 1:13 pm 12/1/2011

    Forgive my typos. I’ll provide those per barrel values tonight. I promise you’ll be shocked and appalled at how bad the tar sands measure up in this regard. Perhaps the author can give us those numbers for now?

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  15. 15. mrhyman 2:00 pm 12/1/2011

    The carbon intensity of production arguments seem to have been well addressed (or over-addressed) at this point by both the author and his critics. Either way, christineottery and sault have equally interesting points about the non-carbon impacts of production. Even if they can be mitigated, the costs and impacts of mitigation should be considered.
    Returning to the economics, smurfcrusher and the author are right – the best way to encourage the use of alternatives is to increase the price of oil. One way to do so is not to build the pipeline, although it would be preferable to use market-based principles such as a fuel tax, in combination with pro-renewable policies. That said, I’m lead back to the concept of carbon lock-in – investment by any entity in Keystone XL precludes the use of that capital for alternative technologies. While those alternative technologies will not have an impact for a while, we need to start those investments now rather than later in order to avoid the more severe impacts of climate change at lower costs. It is true that Valero itself or the US government may not make those investments at this time, but those investments could occur in the future through other private lending or acts of Congress should the permit ultimately be denied (though NEPA reviews are purely procedural).
    Furthermore, while the oil could be used in other countries (with perhaps more severe consequences), one could also argue (by the same logic) that those countries will use oil from elsewhere anyway with those same severe consequences. Consequently, the United States should lead the way in actions to reduce climate change by using alternative technologies, thereby encouraging other countries to do so now or in the future.
    I would also take issue with the argument the author made about roads. I don’t know if they necessarily represent carbon lock-in, since they can be used for travel by alternative vehicles as well.

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  16. 16. Andrew P 2:43 pm 12/1/2011

    I appreciate the article and some of the arguments it brought up, but I am disappointed that you’ve failed to address any of the overarching social aspects, or how this will factor in the everyday lives of you and me (and maybe a few poor people).

    The most important concern that you failed to address was, “How would the shuttering of Keystone XL impact your ability to dine at Chili’s multiple times a week?”

    I’m shuddering to think of the consequences…

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  17. 17. ReynoldR 3:54 pm 12/1/2011

    Someone with no financial interest in the fossil fuel industry needs to point out that tar sands oil is dirtier than more conventional oil. Not only does production of tar sands oil produce more carbon emissions than conventional oil, it consumes large amounts of fresh water, devastates boreal forest,and causes increased cancers among the people that live down stream of the ‘development’.
    I don’t know how we can sacrifice the (largely aboriginal) down stream people for the sake of money. We have apologists for the industry that call it ‘ethical oil’. What is ethical about sacrificing people and their traditional way of life?
    The industry claims it will ‘reclaim’ the land before leaving. This would amount to creating a forest eco system from the bedrock up. No sane person believes it will happen.
    Further, big oil exercises far too much influence over our provincial and federal governments. As pointed out by author Andrew Nikiforuk, Canada has become a petro-state. Petro-states are highly susceptible to corruption because of the corrosive influence of oil money. Another reason to oppose them.
    That’s why I, a resident of the province that has the largest share of the tar sands, would like to see export avenues for tar sands products stopped. I applaud the initial success of 350-org, et. al., in having they keystone pipeline delayed. I’m proud to have traveled to Washington last August to help them convince Obama to withhold approval.

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  18. 18. Randi 4:59 pm 12/1/2011

    The biggest problem I have with this article is this phrase “…a Project Engineer for Shell Oil Company…” I’m sure he knows what he is talking about but with certain credentials, one has to be careful about where the information comes from.

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  19. 19. scottmcnally 5:09 pm 12/1/2011

    Hello everyone, thank you all for your comments and lively discussion. I am the author of this article, and I will try to address some of your points.
    Smurf – See comment #8. Increasing the price of oil is a good option, but intentionally making the process less efficient is counterproductive. The preferred option is to use market-based principles such as a fuel tax in combination with pro-renewable policies. I support this idea.
    For the carbon emissions piece, see comment #10. Nothing is missing. I could provide a thermodynamic systems level evaluation of the process along the entire production pathway with energy inputs and outputs, but I thought it would be a little esoteric and boring for most readers. The facts remain: with coke sequestration, tar sands have lower life cycle carbon emissions. Without coke sequestration, tar sands have a 23% higher emission rate.

    Joseph – You are right, there is environmental pushback. The First Nations made the statement today that they are opposing all tanker exports. Either way, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain goes into Washington State, and exports happen there. An expansion has been proposed which would avoid exporting from the BC coast. But you are right, there is resistance everywhere. The point I want to make is that there should be resistance to such incredible consumption, rather than this type of production, because let’s be honest, oil is dirty everywhere. What would we rather condone, a pipeline in Canada, or wars in the Middle East over oil? There is no easy solution, except to conserve and be more efficient.

    Reynold – See post #10. There are environmental risks with the tar sands operations, and they need to be prudently managed. The fact is all oil is dirty. We need to use less, you are absolutely right.

    Randi – “former engineer for Shell.” I left earlier this year. I am an environmentalist, I am not on the payroll of any oil company, and my data comes from EIA. I don’t particularly support Keystone, I support efficiency and renewables. I do support Keystone over imports from overseas though. From an environmental perspective, the pipeline is less risky.

    Thanks again everyone, keep them coming if you have more.

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  20. 20. electric38 5:41 pm 12/1/2011

    Consumer owned rooftop solar PV needs to be further developed. Each home allows for an EV to be powered by the sun for at least 25 years. This = $0 gas and oil. Each resident has a $0 utility bill for 25 years. All with the free energy from the sun. All with 0 pollution. Every dollar freed up from the greedy clutches of oil companies, utilities and banks (and their paid political machine) via rooftop solar is a dollar well spent.
    Getting our military out of the oil price protection business is a side benefit. Cleaner air and better health is a side benefit.

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  21. 21. edshaya 9:28 am 12/2/2011

    The Keystone XL pipeline provides a huge insecure target for terrorists. A small homemade bomb would have the power to poison the drinking water of 10s of millions of people and ruin a vast area of our wilderness. Given that pipes break on their own and are easily broken, it simply does not make sense to pump crude oil clear across the country. If you want tar sands and you have lots of it, then it should pay off to build a refinery near to the sands. Or is the Gulf of Mexico the only place where you can legally dump all of the toxic waste products from oil refineries?

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  22. 22. edshaya 9:36 am 12/2/2011

    In any case, by the time the pipeline is completed the Canadians will have come to their senses and have signed on to international Global Climate agreements which will prohibit the use of tar sands. So, if the pipeline is designed such that a high speed train line could fit inside, environmentalists should back it.

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  23. 23. MoEnergySci 9:41 am 12/2/2011

    @ edshaya – We already pump oil and gas around the nation through underground pipelines. Tens of thousands of miles of pipeline all over the US (in the continental 48, plus Alaska)

    Cool map (of trunklines around US) here:
    http://www.pipeline101.com/Overview/crude-pl.html

    This map includes those for canadian crude oil.

    Wonder if the author can comment on the safety of these pipelines?

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  24. 24. edshaya 10:55 am 12/2/2011

    @MoEnergySci – Those were built before 9/11, in our naive youth. Also, this is bigger scale than all previous pipelines (either longer or wider). The claim is that the pipeline will be watched 24/7 by satellite and can be turned off in seconds. Except that, we have nothing that penetrates thick cloud cover. So that is when they will hit. Perhaps they will hit at the shutoff valve. I don’t know, solar and wind energy sure seem safer to me. If they can knock out all of our rooftops, then we really don’t need to worry about our energy supply.

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  25. 25. scottmcnally 1:58 pm 12/2/2011

    Ed & Mo – Not only are pipeline spills bad environmentally, it is a waste of money for oil companies, so they are highly incentivized to prevent spills for multiple reasons. As such, there are redundant safeguards. Standard pipeline design is to have flowmeters and shut off valves every couple of miles. The flowmeters tend to be very sensitive, so if there is a leak, even if it is very small, there will be a discrepency between flowmeters and the leak can be pinpointed to within a couple miles. Then an operator can drive out in his truck and the leak will be repaired and cleaned up. If there is a major discrepancy between flowmeters, signalling a bigger leak, the shutoff valves can close automatically and the leak will be stopped immediately. When operated normally, the size of pipeline spills will be limited.
    For the pipe itself to leak is very rare. The wall of the pipe is steel half an inch thick and chemically and cathodically protected. Leaks usually happen at flanges, valves, joints and pumps, so it is easy to predict where they are. Random pinhole leaks in the steel only happen with very old (50+ year old) pipes.
    As far as a terrorist attack is concerned, pipelines are unlikely to be a target. Because of the valves, the size of the leak would be limited to what is actually in the pipe in that section, and I wouldn’t imagine the objective of a terrorist is to spill some oil in the prairie.

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  26. 26. MoEnergySci 2:32 pm 12/2/2011

    @scottmcnally – I’d agree with you, feels like above-ground electricity transmission infrastructure in this country would be a more prime candidate for any type of terrorist threat to the country than underground oil pipelines – especially given the lack of redundant equipment available in the states to repair a major hit.

    Do you happen to know the approx amount (number or, even better, percentage of total) pipe out there that’s in the 50+ year age range? Wonder how it compares to the average age of power plants and transmission and distribution poles in the states.

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  27. 27. nfiertel 5:36 pm 12/2/2011

    This article is absolutely right on and it is more or less what I have written as letters to Sci Am in the past. It is accurate and sensible and balanced. We Canadians are a better source of oil than less conveniently located alternative sources and the money does not go to suppressing people, arming the lunatic fringe nor to terrorism. I cannot say that for other sources of oil nor can those who decry oil coming from Alberta. All the pallaver about corrosive “tar sands oii” is so much nonsense lacking in any truth. I suggest that a lot of the anti- Keystone XL are fueled by agit/prop from competitive energy sources both domestic (US) and foreign who see the oil pipeline threatening their monopoly markets. I myself see the entire affair as smelling of lobbyists from both the Greens who are naive and energy sector lobbyists who would not profit from any oil source other than their own and who are playing games with people’s unsubstantiated fears in a strange alliance. Driving more efficient vehicles, insulating older homes, establishing more alternative energy sources including geo thermal would make more sense than banning a safe and secure oil source. We are going to sell it elsewhere easily enough. In point of fact, Canadians are not enthusiastic about Keystone XL as it takes away possible jobs from us by sending crude and not finished petro products rather. Only the US is the loser in this debacle as I see it. I am not associated in any way with any energy company or sector but merely a thinking and objective observer of the fracas over the pipeline. We are not the Oil Sheiks of the North by the way and Albertans are very frugal with energy at home and we tend to drive efficient vehicles. Gasoline costs a lot more than in the US. ( 1.35/litre is common out here) Put the blame elsewhere other than on us. If you choose not to build the pipeline, fine with me. We want to have cordial relations with China and India in any case and this will suit us either way with more trade and less political backswells in so doing.

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  28. 28. edshaya 11:33 pm 12/2/2011

    MoEnergySci – When they knock out the power grid the shutoff valves on the pipeline will not operate. They have it all planned out, I am sure.

    scottmcnally – I am surprised that you imply a few thousand barrels of crude oil (about 2 miles of filled pipe) spilled into Midwestern aquifers is OK. Maybe it is; what do the studies say about this?

    nfiertel – There is no conspiracy. The argument that oil from tar sands will produce more C02 per gallon of gas and make the greenhouse effect even worse is plain to everyone. The hope among all who care about the Earth and its living creatures is that alternative fuels will grow fast enough so that if tar sands projects are delayed by just a few years, it will be obvious that they will not be needed at all.

    There is no reason at all why the world cannot double alternative fuels each year until this is the case. And, we can save money and create jobs at the same time: both solar and wind energy are essentially at $1/watt. An American home needs 2Kw to run the TV, fridge, and heat pump, so that is $2K for the cells plus installation. We can afford that even in a recession. Our cars can be charged at night by wind farms and geothermal generators. That is how you stop spilling money out of the country, not by tearing up and poisoning your beautiful countryside.

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  29. 29. scottmcnally 12:16 am 12/3/2011

    Love the discussion going on here. Thanks everyone for your participation.
    I’m not aware of any specific studies on a potential spill over this aquifer, but keep in mind, a spill would not go directly into the aquifer. It will go on the ground, then have to travel 200 feet downward through vegetation, silt, sand, clay, gravel and rock in order to reach the aquifer. This is a very effective natural filter. Additionally, oil and water are not soluble, and oil floats. Since there is groundwater naturally, its possible that a spill may not even penetrate the topsoil.
    I am not saying spills are okay – they are not – but for oil to reach the aquifer, it would have to be a large volume, continuously, over a long period of time.

    Shutoff valves are never connected to the grid. They are either pneumatically actuated, run off the differential pressure in the pipeline, or sometimes solar powered. Invariably, for safety reasons, they are also fail-close. (If power is lost, the valve will shut automatically.)

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  30. 30. onewheeldrive 11:26 am 12/5/2011

    Simple cheap solutions to oil addiction, while lowering income and property tax.
    1. remove subsidies and tax breaks to oil companies
    2. end subsidized oil research.
    3. make vehicle milage-x-weight tax – not property, sales and income taxes pay for any and all road improvements and repair.
    4. require that auto insurance be no-fault, GPS-milage-speed-weight, based; so that drivers save money by not driving.
    5. make said insurance cover all medical expenses of people involved in accidents — saving our public hospitals billions.

    People will walk more often. Neighborhoods will come more alive. Streets will become safer for pedestrians.

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  31. 31. EThomas 3:41 pm 12/5/2011

    What do you mean by “Environment verses humans. The earth versus polluters.” There are no humans w/o environment. We are not separate.

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  32. 32. bucove 3:07 pm 12/6/2011

    The writer’s attempt to disassociate ‘root’ from ‘leaf’ through irrelevant (and subliminally symbolic) metaphor itself displays the sort of ‘pay me enough and I’ll say anything’ science that is increasingly misrepresenting fact and indirecting fundamental social infrastructure from a mathematical basis to one of rhetoric and confidence; in essence: the article displays a faith based logic. Welcome to the new theocracy of America.

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  33. 33. scottmcnally 7:54 pm 12/7/2011

    @ Onewheel – you make some good points. 1&2 – I will write an article on the tax breaks for oil companies. Very few people understand what they actually are, I will address how they are both good and bad. 3 – could work. Intersting thought. 4 – I like this one. Most of the auto accidents in the country are caused by a small percentage that drive a lot and get in a lot of accidents, so in essence, the good drivers are subsidizing the bad drivers. 5 – don’t know if I can comment here.
    @ bucove – I’m not sure I understand your comment. What is the root and what is the leaf? How is it subliminally symbolic? How is this ‘pay me enough and I’ll say anything’? How am I misrepresenting fact? How is this faith based logic? I disagree with everything you have said. Feel free to email me if you would like to have a private conversation.

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  34. 34. TheTrue2 3:35 pm 12/12/2011

    Keystone is an environmental question…the butimen is “dirtier” than other crudes in the market. In the life cycle (from mine to tailpipe)a total of 35% more green house gases will be released by the use of this oil than commercially available crudes now in use. Like you mentioned, Canadian oil is going all around the world. But, any country that is refining the butimen, need to make sure that the refineries pollution control systems capture their share of the increase 20% more green-house emissions coming from mining and refinery, somehow, so that we don’t accelerate the “dumping” of green house gases into the air from all crudes now used commercially. Canada don’t have an issue with the green house gases coming out of the mining process because Canada is not really an industrial nation, so, they can live with the emissions from the mining operation. We have a political and environmental obligation to make sure that we control the additional emissions. As a nation we can’t champion taking action against green house gases and ignore this pipeline bringing dirtier oil to our soil.

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  35. 35. DInkSinger 1:52 am 02/2/2012

    There are several problems with this analysis.

    The synthetic oil produced from Alberta oil sands cannot be shipped to the Pacific at the present time at any price, let alone a lower price. Shipping it to Asia depends on either the building of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines and a new marine terminal at the Kitmat, BC, end, or expanding the capacity of the existing Kinder Morgan Trans-mountain pipeline which is currently operating at capacity. There is strong opposition in Canada to these projects. Keystone argues that if the U.S. doesn’t let it build the pipeline to the Gulf it doesn’t make any difference because the synthetic oil will be shipped to the Pacific through the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines and Enbridge and Kinder Morgan argue it doesn’t make any difference if their pipelines are not built or expanded because the synthetic oil will be shipped to the Gulf through Keystone XL.

    The fact is that the amount of tar sand synthetic oil produced in Canada in the coming years primarily depends on the capacity of the pipelines. Every pipeline built will be used to capacity and the price of oil will be lower than it would otherwise be until the equilibrium in the world market is achieved by increased demand.

    Link to this

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