Some question environmental dangers of Keystone XL

Some question environmental dangers of Keystone XL

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News & Events - Engineering News

February 21, 2013

After losing out with a traditional economic approach - and watching President Barack Obama win reelection last November - the company behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada, has decided to change tactics, looking instead to counter some of the environmental arguments against the project, according to The Associated Press.

The oil industry suffers through an essentially never-ending series of controversies, from environmental concerns with new engineering tools to conflicts over the distribution of wealth. But in the American oil industry, no issue stirred as many passions last year and into the end of 2011 than the debate over the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, stretching from central Canada to the Gulf Coast through the center of the country.

Environmental opposition
Opponents of fossil fuels, led by local and national environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, rallied around the issue and pushed hard for Obama to reject the pipeline proposal entirely - an unusual vulnerability for the pipeline caused by the fact that it crosses international borders.

The big concern highlighted by the White House was that the original route passed over the sensitive Nebraska Sand Hills and a crucial regional water source in the Ogallala Aquifer. But environmental advocates have also decried the potential impact of the Keystone XL on greenhouse gas emissions.

The new pipeline is intended to carry the growing amount of synthetic crude being produced from Alberta's massive Athabasca oil sands deposits, the third-largest deposit of hydrocarbons in the world behind only those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Oil sands require significantly more energy to produce, transport and refine than traditional crude oil, and contain more contaminants than other sources.

TransCanada president for energy and oil pipelines Alex Pourbaix spoke before a forum on Tuesday, February 19, trying to dismiss these concerns as overblown. Canada, he noted, emits only 2 percent of global greenhouse gases and the Canadian oil sands are responsible for only 5 percent of that amount.

"Simple math tells us, therefore, that the oil sands represent only one-tenth of 1 percent of global greenhouse emissions," said Pourbaix. "Even if production from the oil sands were to double, the (greenhouse gas) contribution from the oil sands would be immaterial to global [emissions]."

Pennsylvania State University researcher Michael Mann notes that Pourbaix neglects to account for the possibility that production from Canadian oil sands could grow dramatically given an economical outlet, and similarly fails to account for all of the emissions involved in using synthetic crude compared to more conventional sources.

Unavoidable problem
It may not matter whether the oil sands are more polluting than traditional sources, however, as Popular Mechanics notes that Canada is largely committed to tapping into these reserves one way or another.

As it stands, much of that crude will be transported via rail like the pent up production from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, which comes along with its own environmental concerns. But there are two other emerging options, the Northern Gateway Pipeline being pushed by Enbridge and the expansion of the Kinder Morgan TransMountain Pipeline, both of which run to the West Coast.

Unlike with the Keystone XL, where a significant portion of the crude would be used in refineries in the U.S., the westward pipelines would likely send most of this oil to countries like China, Korea and Japan. To do this, it would need to be loaded on tankers and shipped through the Gulf of Alaska and along the Aleutian Islands, areas rife with sensitive ecological systems and well known for rough seas.

"People remember the Exxon Valdez and worry that sort of thing can happen again if these pipelines are built," Michael Byers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told the news source. "Imagine oil-laden tankers passing through one of the richest fisheries in the United States. That will raise many concerns."

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