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It’s Not the Pipes, It’s What’s In Them: Toxic Tar Sands Sludge


Pipelines, in and of themselves, aren’t the fundamental problem, although whenever someone digs a big trench through your property, it’s problematic, even when they cover it and absolutely, positively promise you it’s totally safe, and even it should leak or break or whatever, they’ll be there for you, to make the repairs and do any clean-up they deem necessary and governmental oversight agencies pre-approve. No, it’s not the pipes, it’s what’s in them, what is running through them, that’s the big problem. And in the case of one pipeline – also symbolic for all the others – what would move from Canada to the Texas Gulf is toxic tar sands sludge. More specifically – as I’ve learned through a lot of reading – bitumen from tar sands is thinned with a petroleum diluent, so it can run through the pipelines to the refinery. Diluted bitumen, “dilbit,” is what will be in the KXL pipe. Or in the train. Or in the truck.

Yesterday the Washington Post reported:

Environmentalists demand new climate analysis for Keystone XL

Just a day before President Obama announced he would only approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it ‘does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem,’ six environmental groups quietly lodged a protest with the State Department charging it would do exactly that.

The 48-page letter … demands the State Department, which has jurisdiction over the pipeline permit, prepare a new supplemental environmental impact statement to take into account several new analyses that they say prove the project will speed heavy crude extraction in Canada’s oil sands region.

The June 25th climate change speech was called “ambitious” by the NY Times. Noting that this was one of several differing interpretations of the speech by the media, specifically in terms of what his unexpected remarks on Keystone meant, Inside Climate News wrote “Obama on Keystone Pipeline Is All Things at Once.” From Obama’s speech:

Our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil. And, by the way, it’s certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline.

The line got a laugh. He then pointed to the State Dept. study, and continued:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

It’s important to remember that the State Department study was contracted to Environmental Resources Management, Inc. From Price of Oil, arguing that given Obama’s comments about the study, it’s likely the northern section of KXL will be approved.

That’s because Obama’s State Dept. – assigned to make a final decision on KXL because it crosses the international border – contracted its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (SEIS) out to Environmental Resources Management, Inc. (ERM Group).

ERM Group is a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute (API), as is TransCanada. …

Further, one of the ERM employees tasked to conduct the SEIS, as exposed in a Mother Jones investigation, is a former TransCanada employee.

Price of Oil adds this significant point:

Keystone proponents do not deny that that tar sands oil it would carry is more carbon intensive than conventional oil. What they argue instead is that even without Keystone XL, the Canadian tar sands will be developed anyway, and delivered to market by other pipelines or trains. …

If Keystone XL, which would carry over 800,000 barrels per day of the world’s highest carbon liquid fuel, does not qualify as significantly exacerbating carbon pollution, it is hard to imagine what would. It is as relevant to climate as the tar sands mega-mines that produce the stuff it carries.

One TransCanada argument has been that even if the KXL pipeline isn’t completed, the dilbit will still get to the Texas refineries. EcoWatch addresses that argument, as related to the letter sent to the State Department. Those signing included Bold Nebraska, Center for Biological Diversity, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oil Change International and the Sierra Club.

Evidence that Keystone XL is the lynchpin for tar sands development detailed in the letter includes:

A Goldman Sachs report that says that rail shipments of tar sands could not replace the proposed pipeline logistically and economically. …

Royal Bank of Canada’s estimate that denial of Keystone XL would jeopardize $9.4 billion in tar sand development.

That the toxic tar sands sludge will get to the Texas Gulf, with or without KXL, seems likely, but that it could at least be delayed without their obvious first choice, is also likely. That’s one reason opponents of the pipeline point to what would flow through the pipes as the fundamental problem. A report from yesterday highlights this basic concern. From Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

Officials confident derailed Calgary train won’t fall into river

Canadian Pacific Railway cars are filled with flammable petroleum diluent.

This is the stuff used to dilute the tar sands sludge.

Tar Sands Blockade and BOLD Nebraska and others are certainly working to stop, or delay, the actual KXL pipeline. The southern portion is near completion, though since TransCanada is having to dig up sections, for repairs, more delays of their own making are helping.

But finally, it isn’t the pipeline, or the train, or the truck, that’s the fundamental problem. It’s what they carry.

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4 Responses to It’s Not the Pipes, It’s What’s In Them: Toxic Tar Sands Sludge

  1. fangio June 28, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    Maybe someone should go talk to the people in Michigan who live along the Kalamazoo river. Years later they are still trying to clean up the dilbit that spilled into a beautiful, scenic stretch of river and killing everything in it’s path. As you said, dilbit is like glue, once it’s out it’s almost impossible to clean up. As for shipping it to the gulf coast; you and I have mentioned before that this crap is for export and the only other way to get to Asia is to go to the western coast of Canada. But those people don’t want it either. Wonder how many people know that China is heavily invested in Canadian tar sands?

    • Joyce Arnold June 28, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

      The Michigan spill is mentioned fairly often in the various things I read, but you’re right, it should be highlighted.

      And the China investment is something else that needs to be known.

      I talked with someone with Tar Sands Blockade a week or so ago, and they continue organizing actions at various places, as do the other similar organizations. Given the kind of resources the petroleum industries have, not to mention the Canadian and U.S. governments, it’s a major accomplishment that the activists have gotten as much attention as they have.

      • Taylor Marsh June 28, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

        The last sentence in your comment should be repeated again and again.

        Not that the whole thing isn’t infuriating! However, social and new media have changed the game on this so that the polluters are widely known and made uncomfortable.

        No doubt we all want more, but sometimes it’s good to quit seeing the glass always empty, otherwise these things become so overwhelming that people feel getting involved is an exercise in complete futility, instead of just being the professional underdog. It’s still depressing, but it’s better than in the old days.

  2. Cujo359 June 29, 2013 at 4:41 am #

    “but that it could at least be delayed without their obvious first choice, is also likely.”

    The products derived from that tar sands oil will also be more expensive, which should moderate demand for them somewhat. People will pay a lot for gasoline and diesel fuel when they have to, so preventing the stuff from being dug out of the ground in the first place is definitely the better option.

.... a writer is someone who takes the universal whore of language
and turns her into a virgin again.  ~ erica jong