Monday, 30 April 2012 10:11
April 30, 2012
As the U.S. continues to increasingly rely on Canada as its most important foreign oil source, environmentalists and scientists are concerned about the repercussions of the partnership.
The U.S. has worked to fundamentally alter domestic oil and natural gas drilling over the past decade, as lawmakers work to achieve the long sought after goal of energy independence. While drilling activity has jumped both on and offshore in the U.S., the nation has increased its Canadian imports target as well.
However, Canada's oil sands produce a kind of oil that engineers assert has a greater negative impact on the environment. Refining such oil requires new technology that releases a substantial amount of greenhouse gases, environmentalists say, and they are growing more concerned by the symbiotic relationship between the two North American neighbors and allies.
CNN reports that imports of oil from Canada's oil sands are poised to jump more than 300 percent over the next 10 years. The failure of backers to ensure the construction of a pipeline that would transport such oil directly from Canada to refineries in the U.S. underscored how environmentalists have opposed the jump in what they deem "dirty oil," but proponents are pushing forward with plans to build even more ambitious pipelines over the next few years.
By 2020, the U.S. is expected to import almost 10 percent of its total oil consumption from Canada's oil sands, with more than 1.5 million barrels reaching the U.S. each day according to data from the Sierra Club. Such a precipitous uptick would require a major restructuring of the nation's domestic refining facilities, and could spur a major wave of engineering research and development as scientists work to improve such a process, experts say.
Canada's oil sands produce bitumen, unlike wells in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world where crude oil is extracted. Bitumen, according to scientists, is significantly heavier than crude and, as a result, requires a more demanding refining process. What's more, it is so viscous that oil companies must first dilute the fossil fuel with natural gas liquids before it can be transported through pipelines.
The debate over the transportation of bitumen has become the focal point of controversy as imports surge, according to the news provider. Environmentalists contend it is exceedingly dangerous to send bitumen through pipelines, as it could spur corrosion. However, scientists have thus far been unable to conclusively prove a causal relationship.
Moreover, some industry watchers have questioned whether the nation's existing pipeline architecture is capable of transporting bitumen. UPI reports that pipeline operators said such an assertion is unsubstantiated, but the Sierra Club has argued the U.S. is not prepared for the coming deluge of bitumen imports.
"We've got all this unconventional crude and we're completely unprepared for it," said Michael Marx, a campaign director at the environmental organization.
Marx also said that bitumen is more difficult to clean up than conventional crude, as it is heavier than water and sinks. "We just don't have the technical sophistication to vacuum oil off the bottom of a river," Marx said.
Officials in Canada have strongly argued against the "dirty oil" label over the past few years. While they concede it requires a more thorough refining process, they noted that the U.S. routinely imports non-crude heavy oils from other nations. Still, environmentalists have increased their efforts to slow the surge in oil imports.
Oil engineers at the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is tasked with regulating oil pipelines, are currently working to more effectively study the subject. The oil industry and environmentalists are awaiting the results.
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