By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The Obama Administration released its revised environmental impact assessment on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline Friday, portraying the project as a safe and needed way to transport oil from fields in Canada and North Dakota to the US heartland and ports at Houston.

Many environmentalists, who’ve been fighting the pipeline on the grounds that tar sands are especially destructive to air and water, were taken aback and angered by the report.

The Sierra Club issued an alert to its members:  “Shockingly, the report still downplays the overall effect of the tar sands on our climate. But while the report may be outrageous malpractice, science is on our side.”

Tar sands action at White House, 400 pixels

Several times protesters have gathered in Washington to ask the Obama Administration to turn down the pipeline.

Sierra urged members to comment on the review and tell President Obama: “It’s impossible to fight climate change while simultaneously investing in one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuels on the planet.”

But Sierra’s nightmare was the American Petroleum Institute’s pleasant dream.

“No matter how many times KXL is reviewed, the result is the same: no significant environmental impact,” said API Executive Vice President Marty Durbin. “The latest impact statement from the State Department puts this important, job-creating project one step closer to reality.”

Is it worth the risk?

The Keystone pipeline has become a rallying point for environmentalists because it will contribute to climate change — even more than conventional oil — and because leaks could be more harmful. Transported tar sands must be mixed with chemicals to dilute the tarry bitumen that’s extracted from the earth. This more corrosive, thick substance is more likely to breach pipelines, they say, and when it spills, it causes more harm.

A major 2010 spill involving tar sands oil near Kalamazoo, Michigan and involving a different carrier,  Enbridge, has still not been cleaned up because the oil sank to the bottom of the river.

The new State Department report found, however, that the Keystone pipeline presents only minimal risk to water resources and soil, though it did not rule out the possibility of some contamination along the route from “releases” (translated: “spills”) of oil.

Keystone Neb. Reroute per EIS 2013

The latest route for the Keystone XL, from the Canadian border to Steele City, NE.

Previous State Department reports also spoke favorably about the transcontinental pipeline, designed to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to port in Houston with stops in the US heartland. But the project ran into a delay in 2011 when protesters in Nebraska complained that the route imperiled the Ogallala Aquifer, a key source of irrigation and drinking water for that state and beyond. President Obama called for a new review to give Nebraskan officials time to identify a new route through the state. (Critics say the president just wanted the hot-button issue on hold during the 2012 election.)

The new Nebraska route, the State Department noted in its review, will bypass areas where the Ogallala is close to the surface, and where it does pass over the aquifer it would be “very unlikely that the proposed pipeline area would affect water quality…”

The expanded report, which also looks at environmental and economic impacts of the project, noted that the pipeline could carry 830,000 billion barrels of tar sands oil per day the Canadian tar sands fields in Alberta and the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota.

Keystone owners have told the State Department they have commitments to carry 555,000 bpd of “heavy crude” (translation: diluted tar sands oil) from Canada and 65,000 bpd of light crude from the Bakken region.

Pipeline owner TransCanada says it has deals in place with U.S. refiners “to ship over hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day to meet the needs of American consumers.”

The shadow over this sunny picture for increased domestic energy comes from environmentalists and academics who say tar sands will force climate change to happen faster; potentially bypass American consumers for better markets overseas, and fail to bring the jobs that promoters have trumpeted.

Pipeline opponents concerned about climate change point out that the carbon- and methane-polluting tar sands could push us past a point of no return, spelling “game over” for the planet, as NASA climate scientist James E. Hansen has said.

Natural Resource Defense Council’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz stressed this point in a blog reacting to the latest review.

“Past reviews severely underestimated the very serious harm to our climate, health, communities and water from the Keystone XL pipeline and expansion of tar sands extraction and refining. Unfortunately, this draft review is no different” wrote Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the NRDC’s International Program.

The pipeline will worsen climate change by enabling the tar sands to expand, she argues.

“…What we already know from existing analysis is that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest. The pipeline means worsening climate change. Piping it through the US heartland would put our ranchers and farmers at risk from difficult to clean up oil spills. And sending it to the Gulf Coast only makes our country a dirty oil gateway to overseas markets. This is a project where multi-national oil companies reap in the benefits while US communities take the risks.”

A parallel, but different concern being voiced by some academics and environmentalists  is that tar sands extraction, by “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in terms of energy sources, is an economically shaky prospect as well.

Tar Sands (.org) in Canada

An aerial view of a tar sands mining area.

Tar sands oil is the most inefficient of fossil fuels, these critics note. A barrel of tar sands requires several barrels of water to extract. It must be diluted with chemicals and heated (by natural gas) just to ready it for shipping to terminals, where it still must be refined.

All these energy inputs mean that the yield for tar sands is about three refined barrels of oil for the energy input equivalent of one barrel of oil. This 3:1 energy efficiency ratio is far below the current 25:1 energy ratio (roughly) for conventional crude, and fails to beat energy return ratios for renewables.

The economic problem could trigger or compound other issues: If tar sands profit margins are thin, the scramble to cover investments (pipelines, refineries etc.) could drive accelerated extraction, the argument goes, worsening climate change and raising environment risks to pipeline communities.

The full length of the pipeline, from the tar sands in Alberta to the Houston ship channel, will be about 1,800 miles, but the latest review only deals with about one-third of that, the pipeline route from the Montana/Canada border to Southeastern Nebraska.

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