Keystone Pipeline 101

On January 12, the Senate voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline, with 63 in favor and 32 against.  The House had already approved the pipeline.  Both approvals went through, despite President Obama’s statement that he would veto the bill if it were approved. However, both the House and Senate votes were just shy of the two-thirds needed to ensure that the bill could not be vetoed.  The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed pipeline that would carry crude oil that has been mined from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined.  

The pipeline would carry crude oil, which is mined by clearing the area of all trees, wildlife, and several layers of topsoil.  After this, the oil sands are shoveled out of the ground and placed in large trucks, where they are mixed with hot water and shaken to separate the tar into its three main layers: sand, water, and bitumen.  The layers are then mixed with natural gas or crude oil to thin the mixture so it can be sent through a pipeline to a refining facility.

An important part of discussing the Keystone XL pipeline is defining everything so that a clear understanding of the situation can be reached.  Many different news sources, both scientific and non-scientific, use different terms that may describe the same thing, or many refer to something else entirely.  For example, the oil being transported through the pipeline is often described as “oil sands” and “tar sands,” with some news sources combining both terms into “tar sands oil.” All three terms describe the same thing: the thinned bitumen that is traveling through the pipes.  However, the correct term is “oil sands,” which refers to the water, sand, clay, and bitumen found in the ground that is being mined; the product being transported into the U.S. is “oil sands-derived crude oil.” An extensive mining process is required to remove the bitumen from the oil sands and make it usable- in its natural state, bitumen is "as hard as a hockey puck" according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Out of all these components, the bitumen is what is being mined and removed from the ground for energy purposes.  

Bitumen may be removed by one of two processes, open-pit mining and in-situ mining. Oil sands deposits are found at varying depths in the ground; very shallow deposits are mined there, using the open pit method, and deeper deposits are mined using in-situ drilling.  

Open pit mining is just what it sounds like- large trucks shovel the oil sand into other trucks that take it to be broken down in large clumps.  Then, the clumps are thinned out with water and then transported to a plant that removes the bitumen from the mixture and uses it to create crude synthetic oil. Only 20 percent of oil sands are accessible through open pit mining.  

The other 80 percent must be reached using in-situ drilling, a much lengthier process.  Although the technology used has advanced to lessen the amount of surface disturbed by the drilling, it is what occurs under the surface that creates a lasting environmental impact. In-situ drilling uses a method known as “steam-assisted gravity drainage,” or SAGU.   A horizontal well is drilled into the ground to reach the oil sands deposit, and then steam is pumped underground to liquefy the bitumen, which is pumped to the surface through a second well that has been drilled nearby.  The contaminated water is then reused in the process and pumped back into the ground.  With the new technology, more than 20 wells can be mined from the same initial drilling site.  NPR has a helpful Infografic on the mining process here: How Tar Sand Oil Is Produced.

The Keystone XL pipeline would carry this bitumen that has been thinned to refineries on the Gulf Coast in the United States.  Supporters of the pipeline argue that it would create much-needed jobs in the US, and environmentalists who argue against the pipeline say that the carbon footprint of the pipeline would be too great, along with the risk of oil spills and the issue of placing miles of pipe through areas that are vital to ecosystems and groundwater resources.  

Not even taking into account the carbon footprint that would be created through the mining and refining processes, it is important to look at the consequences that the construction of the actual pipeline itself would create.  Constructing thousands of miles of pipeline through important ecological areas, such as the Nebraska Sandhills, home to many species and several species of migratory birds, would interfere permanently with the ecosystem.  Even after construction had been completed, the risk of oil spills would be a possible threat to the area.  It would also interfere with the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest groundwater sources in North America that is already facing problems with over-withdrawal.

It should be noted that two large segments of pipeline have already been built: a 298 mile stretch from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma, and a 485 mile segment between Cushing and Nederland, Texas.  This is about 40 percent of the total proposed pipeline, and oil is already flowing from production in the central U.S.

Overall, while the Pipleline could stimulate job growth in the United States, the environmental problems and potential problems that it would create, far outweigh the benefits.  As we have already seen with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the lasting environmental impact from just one mishap can reverberate throughout the ecological community for years afterward and cause irreparable damage.  If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, there are many possibilities for environmental damage just in the the early stages.  The method of obtaining the bitumen has been proven to be extremely toxic to the environment, leaving behind radioactive materials and other harmful chemicals in the ground that remain there long after the area has been mined.  From the mining process, to the building, and finally the transportation of the crude oil through the pipeline all over the US, the Keystone XL pipeline has the potential to become the next great American oil disaster for the environment.   


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