The proposal to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been making a lot of headlines recently, and the reason this story isn’t going away is because it is really, really important. Despite the President’s remarks at the second inauguration to “respond to the threat of global warming,” the Obama administration has yet to make any difficult decisions regarding energy. Rejecting the Keystone pipeline is an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to a low-carbon future.
If the Keystone XL pipeline were to be approved, we would not only be missing an opportunity to respond to global warming. We would be taking a step backwards. The proposed pipeline would run from tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas. Tar sands, also called oil sands, are pretty much what they sound like – sand mixed with a type of petroleum called bitumen, and often some clay and water. Canada has the largest known bitumen deposits in the world, but only recently has the price of oil been high enough to make extraction from the oil sands profitable. Unfortunately, the extraction and refinement of oil from tar sands is extremely energy intensive, as the process produces about 14% more greenhouse gases than the average oil used in the U.S. At a time when we need to stabilize or even reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, choosing to develop a dirtier energy source just doesn’t make sense.
Proponents of the pipeline argue that the tar sands will be developed whether or not Keystone is approved, and therefore the U.S. would only be hurting itself by rejecting Keystone. Whether or not this is the case, the U.S. needs to draw the line somewhere. We need to burn fewer fossil fuels, or we are going to be facing some serious consequences soon. The move away from fossil fuels is not going to be the easiest option; it is going to require difficult decisions like the Keystone XL pipeline.
But for proponents of fossil fuels, or even for people who support a gentle weaning off of fossil fuels, the Keystone XL pipeline does not seem like a battle worth fighting. Natural gas at least contributes to energy security and independence. Developing Keystone is not about meeting domestic energy needs, nor about reaching energy independence. The oil from the Keystone pipeline would be piped across six U.S. states and precious aquifers so it could be exported from the Gulf Coast.
In addition to greenhouse gases from the extraction and refinement of bitumen, there are some very serious safety risks associated with pipeline transportation. In order to make bitumen more viscous and able to flow through a pipeline, it is diluted with light hydrocarbons and natural gas. The pipeline that spilled in an Arkansas subdivision last month was carrying this mixture of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from Canadian tar sands. The incident serves as a strong reminder of what can go wrong if a pipeline fails. The long lasting consequences of such a spill can be seen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where 840,000 gallons of diluted bitumen spilled out of a pipeline nearly three years ago.
Thirty-eight miles of the Kalamazoo River is still polluted, and there is no good way to clean it up.
If that seems like a high frequency of dilbit, spills, it is. Diluted bitumen has only been piped since the late 90s, and proper research on the safety of the technology is severely lacking. However, some preliminary research has been done, and yields disturbing results. A study from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that “Pipelines in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan spilled 3.6 times as much crude per mile than the national average between 2010 and 2012.”
Those results were contested by the government of Alberta (which is currently lobbying for the approval of Keystone).
They found that dilbit does not increase the frequency of pipeline spills. However, there are a couple of reasons to believe that specifically dilbit might be a riskier substance to move through pipelines.
First of all, dilbit pipelines operate at a higher temperature than regular pipelines. Bitumen, even after it is diluted, is an especially thick substance and so it requires a lot of energy to move through a pipeline. This creates heat from friction, and too much heat can cause external corrosion on pipelines. A study of pipelines in California found that those operating at over 100 degrees F are 23 times more likely to spill. The Keystone XL pipeline would operate at between 130 and 150 degrees F.
Additionally, pipelines transporting dilbit may be more likely to spill due to internal corrosion. Even after it is diluted, dilbit is the most sulfurous and acidic form of oil produced today, which can cause corrosion inside of the pipe. This is what happened at the Kalamazoo spill in 2010.
Clearly, more research is needed to determine the actual risks of a tar sands pipeline. This research should be done before any real consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline, especially since the consequences of an oil