Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Parochial Pipeline Protest

Even though its most famous resident is currently not at home, dozens of people are camped outside the White House, many with the express purpose of getting arrested, all to protest the construction of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. The US State Department is expected to issue their official recommendation on the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved, would bring up to 700,000 barrels of oil from the Tar Sands region in northern Alberta, Canada, to waiting refineries along the US Gulf Coast, every day. The White House protests are being organized by an umbrella group called Tar Sands Action, which claims to have 1,500 people signed up to get arrested outside of the White House. The group also has the support of a number of celebrities, while some well-known politicians, including California Representative Henry Waxman, have also voiced their opposition to Keystone XL to both the White House and State Department.

Environmentalists on both sides of the border are up in arms over Keystone XL, since they say it will lead to a massive expansion of operations in Alberta's Tar Sands region. While the Tar (or Oil) Sands contain vast amounts of bitumen, getting it out of the ground and transformed into usable petroleum products is a labor-intensive, and polluting, process. Traditionally, oil sands deposits near the surface were strip mined and the bitumen was “cooked” out of the dirt; today producers more often are employing a method called Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage (or SAGD), which injects high-pressure steam deep below the surface to liquify the bitumen so that it can be recovered like a traditional crude oil deposit. While SAGD has far less impact on the surface of the Alberta prairies, it uses vast amounts of water, much of which returns to the surface contaminated and in need of treatment. The bitumen pumped to the surface also either needs to be mixed with other petroleum products to make it liquid enough to ship through pipelines or processed by “upgrader” units on-site to turn it into synthetic crude oil (SCO), which looks and acts like traditional crude. The whole process has turned swaths of the rural prairie into industrial sites, with some of the indiginous First Nations tribes in the region reporting spikes in cancer rates and other illnesses, which they blame on the Tar Sands industry.

Opponents of Keystone XL and the Tar Sands in general have a point - operations in the Tar Sands reserves have an obvious impact on the environment – though some claims made by their opponents, such as calling the Tar Sands the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, are wildly overstated (the Tar Sands produce a fraction of the GHG emissions of the US coal industry). But exploitation of the Tar Sands has been a boon to Alberta's economy and has helped not only to position Canada as a major energy exporter, but also to bring the Canadian dollar to parity with the currency of their southern neighbors. And that's where the parochialism kicks in. Implicit within the American protests against Keystone XL is the idea that if TransCanada is not allowed to build a new pipeline to reach refineries in the American south then the brakes will be put on expansion of Tar Sands operations. This is ridiculous. With global demand for oil growing and traditional super-large fields in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait maturing, more attention is falling on non-conventional deposits like the Tar Sands. So as long as oil prices remain above the $50-60 range (roughly the breakeven point for Tar Sands production) the folks in Alberta will keep the Tar Sands reserves in production. The only question will be where that oil goes. Proposals already exist to build or expand pipelines westward from Alberta to Canada's Pacific coast where Tar Sands bitumen or SCO can then be loaded on tankers headed anywhere, but most likely to China. In fact some in Canada are arguing that even if Keystone XL is approved by the State Dept. that a Pacific Coast outlet is a wise business move so that Alberta will not be subject to the whims of the American market.

So in short, protests by groups like Tar Sands Action aren't going to actually stop oil production in the Tar Sands, but they may succeed in preventing America from getting access to a needed source of crude oil from a close and stable ally.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: