A pipeline north of Dallas. (Photo: Rick Kimpel, Flickr Creative Commons)
The United States is getting an influx of oil from Canada’s tar sands. But the pipeline that brings it has sprung several leaks and environmentalists, and the EPA, are concerned about plans to build an extension to the Gulf coast. Brad Carson, the director of the National Energy Policy Institute, tells host Bruce Gellerman there are advantages and disadvantages to our dependence on Canadian oil.
GELLERMAN: There are billions of tons of oil locked in the vast tar sands of Alberta, Canada. Much of the oil soaked sand is owned by China, but 100 percent of the crude goes to the U.S., making Canada America’s number oil supplier. Getting the crude here by pipeline is costly – financially and sometimes environmentally.
The existing pipeline is just a year old, yet it's had more than ten leaks, and plans for an even longer pipeline are raising serious concerns at the EPA. Brad Carson is director of the National Energy Policy Institute at the University of Tulsa. Welcome to Living on Earth!
CARSON: Thank you so much for having me on today.
GELLERMAN: The pipeline that they’ve been having problems with these last few weeks, with spills, is called Keystone. Am I right?
CARSON: That’s right. Keystone pipeline, it runs 3,500 kilometers down from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, toward Cushing, Oklahoma. And there are about 40 million barrels worth of storage in Cushing. There are a number of pipelines that come into it, and that lead out into major metropolitan areas and it is an essential part of the North American oil infrastructure.
GELLERMAN: That infrastructure doesn’t come cheap.
CARSON: No, it’s very, very expensive. The oil infrastructure in this country and around the world is billions, if not trillions, of dollars of investment.
GELLERMAN: And it’s a year old, and they’ve already had a bunch of spills. At the last count I think it was 11 in just a year.
CARSON: Well, pipelines, as you can imagine, have inherent problems. They have to be closely watched and tightly regulated, and we are fortunate in this country to have those kind of regulations. And recently we’ve found a couple of spills - one in the Dakotas, one in Kansas, far smaller, and that led the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has oversight of those pipelines, to come in and ask them to cease operations until it could be corrected.
GELLERMAN: And I guess they’ve made those corrections.
CARSON: They have indeed.
GELLERMAN: This is very thick and gooey and corrosive petroleum, right?
CARSON: It is very thick and gooey, yes. Oil is measured by its viscosity - how thick it is - and also by its sulfur content. The thicker it is, the higher sulfur, the less valuable that oil is. And Canadian tar sands is thick and it is relative to the best crude oils in this country and around the world - a relatively high sulfur content as well.
GELLERMAN: It’s also very plentiful - there is a lot of oil in them there tar sands.
CARSON: There is indeed. It is now estimated that Canada has the world’s second largest oil reserves, only after Saudi Arabia. So, from purely the perspective of the oil market, Canada’s role and the United States’ interests in those tar sands is a very important one - a very important public policy issue for this nation.
GELLERMAN: Well, and that’s why there’s a new pipeline in the works. What is it called? Keystone XL? I’m guessing it stands for “extra-long?”
CARSON: Keystone XL, exactly right. This pipeline will go all the way from Alberta down toward the Texas Gulf Coast where there’s refinery capacity. It’s controversial for a couple of reasons - there’s of course the environmental concerns - that the pipeline is going to go through some important environmental areas and important habitats for various species in the Dakotas and Nebraska, and also because of the Ogallala Aquifer, which is an important water source for the increasingly arid great plains.
GELLERMAN: So if you have a rupture of this pipeline that’s buried under the ground and you have this heavy, gloppy oil, you can have potential disaster, yeah?
CARSON: You have to be worried about it, but whether the water can seep down into the water table is an open question. The Ogallala Aquifer is not necessarily close up to where the pipeline would be. When you talk about any of our energy infrastructure in this country, there are tradeoffs. And access to more and powerful sources of energy, like oil, from a national security perspective, from the perspective of our economy, is also very important. And so really the public policy question is: Are the tradeoffs, the risks to the environment, worth getting Canadian tar sands to market?
GELLERMAN: But this oil, while it might be good for national security and energy independence, is also very, very polluting in terms of greenhouse gasses.
CARSON: It is right now. It does release more greenhouse gasses than other forms of oil production, than more traditional forms of oil production. And that too is one of the issues that many of the environmentalists have raised in complaining about the Keystone XL. That, you know, they’re opposed to tar sands development for that very reason.
The good news is that new technology is coming on board, and every day it is cleaner and less expensive than it was yesterday to produce that kind of oil. And I have no doubt overtime that technology will improve to the point that it will be as clean as a fossil fuel can be.
GELLERMAN: Climate scientist James Hansen has said that the exploitation of the tar sands could make it implausible to stabilize the climate.
CARSON: I have no doubt that if you look at the amount of resources that are talked about with the tar sands, or around the world, if we were simply to burn all of these oil reserves, we could probably still meet some of the climate targets of two degrees or three degrees Celsius.
You know, scientists say that we can release only another 500 billion tons of carbon, and if you look at natural gas or oil, we can probably burn through most of that and still meet those numbers. We can’t do that plus burn all the coal in the world, of course, but again, the dynamics of the oil market are important to remember here. Because right now, we are sending trillions of dollars a year to often hostile regimes, or regimes that are ambivalent toward the United States.
And so, to have Canada sitting on top of these massive reserves is, in general, a good thing for the United States. The larger debate that James Hansen is part of is whether we need to wean ourselves off of oil in the near term, period. And that is a debate worth having. But so long as we’re an oil addicted economy, the tar sands I think can play an important role in the world oil market.
GELLERMAN: Well, Brad, thanks a lot.
CARSON: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Brad Carson is the Director of The National Energy Policy Institute at the University of Tulsa.
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