North American Main Veins

North American fossil fuels are certainly in a pickle as energy and fossil fuel companies fight tooth and nail to earn an unfathomable amount of pennies from their extraction and sale. At market prices, Alberta, Canada’s 173 billion recoverable barrels of tar sands are worth roughly 1,570 trillion pennies.

Keystone XL
The Keystone XL pipeline is an export pipeline transporting Canadian crude oil into diesel fuel and other products for export to Latin America and Europe. Despite claims, the Keystone XL pipeline will not directly affect America’s dependency on fossil fuels. The pipeline will span across a major agricultural region, the Missouri and Niorbora rivers, Ogallala aquifer, and many sensitive wildlife habitats. A spill in any of these areas could be likened to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but in America’s breadbasket, the results would be disastrous.

Ogallala Aquifer
One of the world’s largest aquifers, the Ogallala Aquifer is 174,000 square miles and spans parts of eight states. The aquifer underlies 27 percent of the United States’ irrigated agricultural land and supplies 30 percent of agricultural irrigation water. Of those people living on top of the aquifer, 82 percent get their drinking water from the aquifer. A fairly shallow aquifer, the water surface ranges from 100 to 400 feet below the surface and could easily be contaminated by a spill.

An infograph of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

An infograph of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

Canadian Business
Canadian crude currently refined in the Midwest will be diverted to refineries along the Gulf coast, effectively increasing fuel costs for Americans by a projected 20 cents per gallon in the Midwest. This will increase Canadian oil companies’ annual revenue in 2013 by $2-3.9 billion–money leaving the U.S. economy.

TransCanada job projections claim 2,500-4,200 jobs will be created, the majority being construction personnel to build a pipeline for two years. A report by Cornell University Global Labor Institute entitled “Pipe dreams? Jobs gained, Jobs lost by the construction of Keystone XL,” concluded that employment potential from Keystone XL is little to none and that the decision should be based on other factors.

Extraction Processes
More than two trillion barrels of the world’s oil is in tar sand form, with the largest deposits in Canada and Venezuela. Eastern Utah has the largest continental U.S. deposit of roughly 12-19 billion barrels.

Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, bitumen, and water mined and processed for the bitumen, which can be converted into a synthetic crude oil. There are two main methods of tar sand mining. One method is called open pit mining, where giant tar sand moving trucks can carry 320 tons of tar sands per load from the giant hole (mine) to the extraction facility. The other common method is steam extraction where steam is pumped down into tar sand deposits, heating the tar sand to where it can be easily pumped to the surface.

Amazingly, extraction and refinement of bitumen is more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil! “One hundred and seventy-six cubic meters of natural gas are required to liquefy, extract, and purify each cubic meter of bitumen produced,” says Eddy Isaacs, director of the Alberta Energy Research Institute. Approximately two tons of tar sands make one barrel of oil. Once out of the ground, the bitumen must be removed from the clay, sand and water. This is accomplished through several processes including extraction and separation systems. Since bitumen is so thick it must be diluted to be transportable through pipelines.

The extraction process uses hot water to separate bitumen from sand, clay, water and minerals. “Hot H20 is added to the sand and the resulting slum is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated. The combination of hot water and agitation releases bitumen from the oil sand, and causes tiny air bubbles to attach to the bitumen droplets that float to the top of the separation vessel, where the bitumen can be skimmed off. Further processing removes residual water and solids. The bitumen is then transported and eventually upgraded to synthetic crude oil,” according to the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

A sand mine near Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, will cater to mining companies’ increasing demand for sand that has the right characteristics for hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking.” The sand is used to keep existing cracks open for easier natural gas extraction. Last summer began with 16 active sand mines and is now at 34 with another 25 sand mines in development.

In President Obama’s Jan. 24 State of the Union address, it was announced that 600,000 new jobs in hydraulic fracturing would be created. “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy,” said President Barack Obama. Fracking has recently been blamed for earthquakes in Northeastern British Columbia. Investigations are underway.

Northern Gateway
What if America does not allow the Keystone XL pipeline? TransCanada has arranged to service another market. The Northern Gateway is a $5.5 billion pipeline capable of transporting 525,000 barrels a day from Alberta to Kitmat, British Columbia. This pipeline boasts similar environmental concerns as the Keystone XL pipeline, except this pipeline leads to a West Coast port where it will be distributed to Asian markets.

American Connection
January: President Obama, in response to a 60-day decision deadline set by Republicans, rejected an application to build the 2,147 mile (1,700 miles in U.S.), 36 inch in diameter, Keystone XL pipeline. “The rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people, as well as our environment,” President Obama said. TransCanada plans to reapply with a new route hoping to be operational by 2014.


Brian Luedtke

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