Tar Sands- game over for the climate?

September 8, 2011 at 8:51 am 1 comment

Between August 20th and September 3rd 2011, more than 1500 environmentalists from across the country pledged to risk arrest during the Keystone XL Pipeline protest. The Keystone XL Pipeline, if built, would move oil from tar sands in Alberta to Texas. Pipelines criss-cross the U.S. already. Why have so many people risked getting thrown in the back of a police car and hauled to jail to oppose this oil pipeline? What is different about this particular oil?

To begin let’s keep the terminology straight – tar sands are the same as oil sands. But tar/oil sands are different from oil shale.  Tar sands are mixtures of sand, clay, and soil mixed with bitumen – a form of crude oil.[1] Since the oil is thick and mixed with other materials, it cannot be pumped up from the ground like crude oil,  so tar sands are either mined or extracted in situ. Extraction in situ requires pumping steam or solvents deep into the ground to liquefy the oil and then pumping it out. Mined tar sands are mixed with hot water to separate the oil from the sand and dirt. The bitumen is upgraded to a higher quality, less viscous oil by adding hydrogen or removing oxygen. Finally the oil is piped to the U.S. or used in Canada. This is basic information about tar/oil sands, but it gets complicated quickly.

Although problems associated with tar sands can be found at every step from extraction to use, protesters are most concerned by the greenhouse gases being released by tar sands. Tar sand mining destroys boreal forests in Alberta, contaminates water supplies with the runoff from slurry ponds, and causes human health problems near refineries.[2]  However, protesters are most concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions from this form of oil.

Photo by Peter Essick

Isn’t all oil created equal? No, it turns out. Wells-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands are between 8 and 37% greater than from other oil sources.[3] Greenhouse gas emissions are higher for tar sands because mining, extracting and processing tar sands requires higher energy inputs. Despite Canada’s low profile as an energy source, it is the single largest exporter of oil to the U.S.[4] If the Keystone XL pipeline is approved by President Obama and our imports of tar sand oil increase, the U.S.’s greenhouse gas production will increase accordingly. Climate scientist Jim Hansen has called the Keystone XL Pipeline a “game-over for the climate” for these reasons.[5]

We are choosing between a short term national security solution – expanded oil imports from Canada – and a long term global security solution – a national climate change stabilization policy. Which is more important?  You can decide.  If you would like to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline go to tarsandsaction.org to sign the petition and take action today.

For more information on Tar Sands check out these sites:
1-EIS Information Center
2-Tar Sands Invasion– a report by NRDC, Sierra Club, EarthWorks and Corporate Ethics International
3-Switchboard– NRDC Staff Blog
4-US Energy Information Administration
5-Jerry Cope

Be Green,

Naomi Lipke


Entry filed under: consequences, conservation, consumption, energy, other, reads, sustainability, tar sands.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. yaz settlement amounts  |  May 2, 2013 at 11:46 am

    That is a very good tip particularly to those new to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very precise information… Appreciate your sharing this one.

    A must read article!


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