Above: Construction of the Keystone pipeline (Wikimedia Commons/shannonpatrick17)

These days, news about the proposed Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline is everywhere. Debates about its potential impacts on the economy and especially the environment have made headlines around the world. It’s even facing opposition from such recognizable figures as Neil Young and the Dalai Lama!

Operational and proposed route of the Keystone Pipeline System. Click image to enlarge (Wikimedia Commons/Meclee)

Did you know? Because bitumen, a source of oil, is also called tar, the Alberta oil sands are traditionally called tar sands.But what exactly is this pipeline, and why is it so controversial? A better understanding of the North American pipeline network as well as petroleum production in the Alberta oil sands should help you better understand all sides of the debate.

Pipelines and bitumen

Pipelines like Keystone and KXL are used to transport unprocessed crude oil from where it’s extracted to refineries that can process it into fuels like gasoline and diesel. Canada has lots of crude oil, especially in Alberta, but most North American refineries are located in the US Gulf Coast region, which stretches from Texas to Florida. Because of the distance between oil fields and refineries, pipelines already crisscross much of North America. Some of these pipelines are also used to transport refined fuels to the marketplace.

The existing Keystone pipeline stretches from Hardisty, Alberta, to Patoka, Illinois, and Cushing, Oklahoma. It passes through southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba on the way. KXL would follow a more direct route south, through Baker, Montana, stretching all the way to the Gulf Coast of Texas. This new “super pipeline” would be capable of carrying 830,000 barrels of oil a day! The southern section, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been built.

However, because the northern section of KXL would cross an international border, it requires special permits from both the Canadian and American governments. Canadian approval was granted in 2010, two years after KXL was first proposed by TransCanada Corporation. However, the US government is still gathering and weighing information about its potential risks and benefits before making a decision.

The Alberta oil sands that would supply KXL are the world’s largest source of bitumen. This sticky, viscous (thick) form of petroleum is very hard to extract and doesn’t flow easily into a well. One common method of extraction is to inject massive amounts of steam into the ground, melting the bitumen so it can be pumped out. Another problem posed by bitumen’s viscosity is that it doesn’t flow very well in a pipeline. It’s a bit like cold molasses! In order to make it thinner, the bitumen is either chemically diluted or converted to a lighter product, known as synthetic crude oil. This process is also known as upgrading.

Map of the Alberta oil sands. Click image to enlarge (Wikimedia Commons/NormanEinstein)

Did you know? The Alberta oil sands contain a mixture of sand, clay, bitumen, and water.Pros and cons

Supporters argue that KXL will be good for the economy, at least in the short-term. It could boost Canadian oil production, create American jobs, and reduce American dependence on oil from politically unstable countries in the Middle East and South America. While KXL is expected to generate thousands of jobs, most of these would be temporary positions related to the construction of the pipeline. The number of permanent jobs created by KXL is estimated to be as few as 35.

The main environmental concern is whether KXL will accelerate climate change. Most refineries in the US are designed to process lighter crudes, so oil sands crude has to be purified and hydrogenated before it can be refined. Because of these extra steps, extracting oil from bitumen is an energy-intensive process, and the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from processing oil sands crude are around 17 % higher than for conventional crude oil.

Environmentalists argue that North America should be moving towards cleaner fuels. In addition to the higher energy costs of refining oil sands crude, the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by burning oil is a major contributor to climate change. Currently, oil and gas production is the largest source of GHG emissions in Canada. While the oil sands industry is responsible for around 8% of Canada’s GHG emissions, and less than 1% of global emissions, the untapped oil reserves in northern Alberta represent a potentially massive source of heat-trapping CO2.

As a result, KXL has prompted a larger debate about whether the oil sands should be developed at all. However, it’s not clear how rejecting KXL would impact oil sands activity, since if it’s not built, the oil would likely be shipped by rail instead.

Map of the Ogallala aquifer. Click image to enlarge (Wikimedia Commons/Kbh3rd)

KXL supporters argue that rail transport is more dangerous, and point to incidents such as the tragic derailment and explosion of a freight train carrying crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 that killed 47 people. However, opponents point out that pipeline safety incidents have doubled in the last decade and have tended to be more serious. For example, a pipeline rupture in Michigan in 2010 spilled more than 20,000 barrels of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

Did you know? Canada’s network of oil and gas pipelines is more than three times as long as the country’s highway network!Water contamination is a serious concern with KXL, since the proposed pipeline would run on top of the Ogallala aquifer, a massive underground water source that provides drinking water for millions of Americans. The depth of the aquifer varies, but in some parts, the groundwater is less than 1.5 metres below the earth’s surface.

So while the debate on KXL may have begun with a pipeline proposal, it has expanded into an international debate about climate change, oil transportation safety, and energy policy. While the final decision on KXL is still up in the air, one thing is clear: the issues at the forefront of this debate aren’t going away anytime soon!


News and general information

Death toll in Lac-Megantic disaster now set at 47 (Sidhartha Banerjee, Canadian Press/CTV News)
Enbridge begins fresh clean-up on 2010 Michigan oil spill (Reuters)
Five Takeaways from the State Department’s review of the Keystone XL pipeline (Washington Post)
How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming? (David Biello, Scientific American)
Keystone XL pipeline may threaten aquifer that irrigates much of the central US (Steven Mufson, Washington Post)
The Keystone XL Pipeline Timeline (Wall Street Journal)
Pipeline map: Have there been any incidents near you? (CBC News)
Pipeline safety incident rate doubled in past decade (Amber Hildebrandt)
What North America’s pipeline network looks like today (Canadian Energy Pipeline Association)

Government publications and expert reports

Canada: Analysis (US Energy Information Administration)
Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Congressional Research Service)
Environmental and Health impacts of Canada’s oil sands industry (Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel)
Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project (US Department of State)
Gulf of Mexico Fact Sheet (US Energy Information Administration)
Heavy oil and natural bitumen resources in geological basins of the world (US Geological Survey)
Keystone XL Pipeline Project: Key Issues (Cornell University ILR School)
National Inventory Report: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada (Environment Canada)
Nebraska’s Keystone XL Pipeline Evaluation (Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality)

Amaya Singh

Amaya Singh is a PhD student in Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. She believes in the power of science, medicine and technology to transform lives. During breaks from school she loves ballet dancing, travelling, and watching big-wave surfing.

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