Stop it Now! Keystone XL will Bring Us the Dirtiest Oil on the Planet (Giesen)

Tom Giesen writes in a guest column for Informed Comment

The US already imports over 2.5 million barrels of Canadian oil each day. Much of it is tar sands oil. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline in the US for tar sands oil is a huge and irreversible mistake.

Tar sands processes have contaminated huge quantities of water, poisoned downstream communities, and destroyed incomparable ecosystems, replacing them with toxic waste dumps.

Alberta’s tar sands produce the dirtiest oil on the planet. The tar sands stretch across a huge area in Alberta’s boreal forests.

The process of getting oil from tar sands is destructive, hugely polluting, and expensive. Here is what is involved:

To access the near-surface tar sand, the boreal vegetation is clear-cut logged and/or stripped off, the covering soils dug up and hauled off, and the exposed tar sand – a mix of bitumen, sand and clay – is strip-mined and transported to a processing plant. It takes more than two and a half tons of tar sands to make one barrel of oil.

In processing, the tar sands are mixed with river water (making the water toxic); then dumped in a separator and heated to induce the bitumen to float to the top.

The floating bitumen is then skimmed off, and the remaining highly toxic wastes – non-floating bitumen, sand, clay and water – are taken to ponds in the open pit mining area and dumped. Birds beware!

The thick bitumen from the separator is mixed with lighter hydrocarbons so it can be pumped and then refined into a heavy crude oil.

The carbon dioxide emissions caused by the multiple processes are more than 20% greater than those from normal crude oil. Tar sands emissions are nearly as bad as coal.

The only thing more toxic than tar sands waste ponds is the thinking that allowed them to be created.

Tom Giesen


Ed. note: for more on the campaign to stop Keystone XL see:

Bill Mckibben: “What we Know”

“Bill McKibben pushes Obama on Keystone”

5 Responses

  1. To help readers visualize the quantities cited,
    a ton of tar sands is about the size of a cube 36 inches in each direction.
    And a barrel of oil has 42 gallons, not 55.

    • The volume of oil recovered / produced is about 6% of the volume of the tar-sand-clay mix used to produce it.

      My impression is that the proportion of tar/ bitumen is much higher than 6%, over 10%, so a lot of it is not captured and made into oil in the process.

  2. If Keystone is such a sweet deal why didn’t Canada build the pipeline to Newfoundland or Vancouver? Because Canada knows XL is a crummy deal and they decided to screw America with the environmental disaster that looms.

  3. Think of a wooden vessel that has a steam engine for propulsion along with some furled sails. The coal is gone and the captain starts using the wood on board to keep the steam engine running. Maybe it is time to unfurl the sails and make it to port with an intake boat but at a slower pace.

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