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Tar Sands Oil - An Environmental Disaster

Posted on 26 July 2012 by dana1981

About a year ago we discussed the Tar Sands Impact on Climate Change.  From a climate perspective, tar sands well-to-tank carbon emissions are approximately 82% higher than conventional oil, well-to-wheel (extraction to combustion) emissions are 10 to 45% higher,  and the proposed Keystone pipeline would represent somewhere in the ballpark of 1 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions over the project's lifetime.

This is not a climate catastrophe-causing quantity of carbon emissions (try saying that 5 times fast).  For example, the Australian Climate Commission's The Critical Decade report concluded that humanity has a budget of 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 to have a probability of about 75% of limiting global warming to 2°C or less.  Thus 1 billion tonnes from the Keystone pipeline and tar sands is not going to break the budget.  However, exploiting the tar sands is a conceptual step in the wrong direction.  We need to start looking at fossil fuels as a natural form of carbon sequestration, not trying to find new unconventional sources of fossil fuel carbon to release into the atmosphere.  As Andy S noted, exploitation of the tar sands would be the equivalent of adding another of Pacala and Socolow's "stabilization wedges" - a chunk of carbon emissions reductions, and we might already need to implement as many as 16 of these wedges.  This will be a huge challenge, and adding more wedges just makes the task all the more difficult.

As we discussed a year ago, the tar sands have some other very nasty environmental impacts, as is clear in  aerial photographs of the region from Google (Figure 1).

Google Tar Sands

Figure 1: 2011 Google aerial photograph of the Athabasca tar sands.  The photograph is approximately 30 miles across.  The most clearly visually impacted area is approximately 15 miles across.

As this photograph shows, tar sands mining opearations result in significant destruction of the boreal forestSome scientists have raised concerns that the tar sands may be causing aquatic life deformities downstream.  Kelly et al. (2010) found a number of pollutants downstream of the tar sands. Rooney et al. (2011) found that tar sands mining is causing massive loss of Canadian peatland and associated carbon storage.

Additionally, there are always concerns about environmental impacts related to potential oil spills and leaks.  On a similar pipeline, Keystone I, there were 12 spills over a period of less than a year, during its first year in operation.  Keystone I had more spills in its first year than any other first-year pipeline in US history.  It was predicted to leak once ever seven years, but instead it leaked 12 times in its first year.  And we now have details regarding a tar sands oil spill which raise even greater concerns about the potential environmental impacts if the latest Keystone pipeline proposal is approved.

The Enbridge Kalamazoo Disaster

Enbridge is a Canadian pipeline builder which operates a pipeline going from the Alberta tar sands through Michigan in the northern United States.  Reports have shown that Enbridge knew of cracks in the pipeline for five years, but failed to address them.  The pipeline started leaking on July 25, 2010, and oil gushed from the rupture for more than 17 hours before the leak was discovered.  More than 3 milllion liters (850,000 gallons) of tar sands crude (bitumen) spilled into Talmadge Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River.  A 25-mile (40-kilometer) stretch of river was contaminated.

Two years later, most of the closed section of the Kalamazoo River has finally been reopened to the public after an $800 million cleanup, the most expensive onshore cleanup in US history.  The cleanup took such a long time because instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river's bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use.

There have been a number of good articles and reports covering the recent events covering this disastrous spill.  For more details, see Deep Climate, Inside Climate News, CBC News, a Wikipedia entry, and this good story on The Rachel Maddow Show:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Ultimately the disaster was caused by a number of contributing factors. 

  • Enbridge failed to take action for years after they were aware of cracks in the pipeline.  As the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board described it, "Learning about Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops."
  • Federal regulations are extremely lax - for example, regulators were not even aware until after the leak that the pipeline was carrying bitumen rather than conventional oil, Enbridge was not required to have a plan to clean up a spill like this, and Enbridge was in compliance with all regulations despite the pipeline cracks, spill, and subsequent two-year-long cleanup. 
  • Bitumen may be more likely to corrode and weaken pipes than conventional oil because of its acidic and abrasive nature, although there have not been studies to test this hypothesis, which is another problem. 
  • And as the Rachel Maddow clip above highlights, the industry simply does not have the technology to clean up bitumen spills when they sink to the bottom of a body of water. 

None of the problems which led to this environmental disaster have been resolved.

Just this past month there have been three pipeline spills in Alberta, with Enbridge's latest spilling 230,000 liters (65,000 gallons) of crude oil onto farmland. A new NWF report details that over the past 12 years, Enbridge is responsible for 804 spils and a total of nearly 7 million gallons of oil spilled in the U.S. and Canada.

One benefit, for those looking for a silver lining on this environmental disaster cloud, is that the Enbridge Kalamazoo fiasco has generated a great deal of opposition to building the tar sands Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia (BC), which represents a very large environmental risk (as Enbridge showed) to BC with little benefit to its residents. 

What's the Benefit of Tar Sands Again?

Combining the associated climate impacts with the exceptionally poor environmental track record and the inevitability of future tar sands oil leaks, it becomes extremely difficult to justify exploiting this resource rather than simply leaving the fossil fuel carbon in the ground.  The economics are a clear motivator for the local Alberta government, although the damage done to the local boreal forest and water quality certainly detracts significantly from that.  From an American perspective, while importing oil from our neighbors to the north may be preferred to other potential sources in less politically stable and friendly regions, the unavoidable associated climate and environmental damage should far outweigh that benefit. 

There are far better alternatives to finding new unconventional fossil fuel sources.  Rather than continuing to feed our addiction to oil, we need to focus on developing and implementing low-carbon alternatives, or the climate and environmental consequences will be as ugly as those experienced by Michigan.

On a lighter note, the Post Carbon Institute has put together a great video on why America needs to break-up with the Keystone tar sands pipeline for good (h/t Climate Progress). 

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. I am interested in the number from the Australian Climate Commission's The Critical Decade report that humanity has a budget of 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 to have a probability of about 75% of limiting global warming to 2°C or less. I read the piece by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone last week which quoted a figure of 565 gigatonnes to stay below a 2 degree increase - which is only half the ACC figure. I would be interested to see the basis for both of these numbers, and an explanation for the discrepancy.
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  2. mandas - McKibben's number is from now to 2050, whereas the Aussie Climate Commmission was 2000 to 2050. We've already emitted 328 Gt, bringing the remaining budget down to 672 Gt. McKibben also uses an 80% probability of limiting to 2°C vs. the Climate Commission's 75%. Not sure what accounts for the rest of the discrepancy, but it's not an exact calculation.
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  3. Thanks dana
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  4. 82% higher (broken link)
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  5. This is not a climate catastrophe-causing quantity of carbon emissions James Hansen disagrees. If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate. Read more here.
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  6. Clyde, I think we're in agreement with Hansen, who says
    "If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.p.m....weneed to start reducing emissions significantly, not create new ways to increase them"
    That's what we said in the above post. However, the amount of carbon which will be released by exploiting the tar sands is still not a climate catastrophe-causing quantity of carbon emissions. The problem is in the approach that we would be taking, exploiting unconventional fossil fuel sources rather than leaving as much carbon in the ground as possible. It represents taking the completely wrong approach, but just by the numbers, the tar sands emissions by themselves aren't going to mean the difference between catastrophe and non-catastrophe.
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  7. I think it's more an issue of going for the unconventional fuels. If we add tar sands, tight oil, oil shale, tight gas, methane hydrates, ultra deep water oil, and unconventional coal, we're on a road to increasing carbon emissions through at least 2030. You can't hit 2 degrees C in a scenario like that. Not by a long shot. Last year, the world emitted 31.6 billion metric tons of CO2, 3.2 percent more than the previous year. Fatih Birol: "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet." At the current growth rate, we're set to hit the trillion ton limit by around 2030 or even before. Much of the growth in fossil fuel use is coming from unconventional fuels like tar sands and since the extraction and enrichment process for tar sands is very similar to oil shale (which is a much, much larger resource), it's really critical we stuff that genie back in the bottle ASAP.
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  8. Further to Dana @6, Hansen is on record as saying that one way to tackle global warming is to never build another coal fired power station, and to phase out all existing coal stations by the end of their design life. He also adds a simultaneous fee and per capita dividend carbon tax. The idea is that by preventing the use of all coal reserves we prevent the burning of sufficient fossil fuels to exceed the 1.5 degree C limit he considers to be the safe limit on temperature increase. Clearly, following this logic he would oppose the opening of new coal mines in my home state of Queensland (Australia), even though all Qld reverves by themselves are no where near enough to take us over that limit. The logic is that what we (Queenslanders) permit ourselves to do, we cannot object to in others; and if others equally exploit their coal reserves we are heading for a 5 degree plus world. The same logic applies to tar sands. Even if the Alberta tar sands are not by themselves enough to bring on disaster, exploiting them tacitly encourages the exploitation of all tar sands, which would be disasterous. I consider the logic to be impeccable, regardless of the merits of any of Hansen's other claims about those tar sands.
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  9. Clyde@5 In his recent New York Times article, I think that James Hansen's figures for the increase of atmospheric CO2 as a result of complete exploitation of the tar sands are incorrect. He cites a figure of 240 Gt of carbon in the tar sands, which, once combusted, would produce an increase of 120 ppm in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. This assumes that the atmospheric fraction (the percentage of CO2 emitted that stays in the air) would be 100% (today it's about 45%, with the rest of the CO2 going into the ocean and biosphere). Although some people are worried that the atmospheric fraction may increase over the next few decades as the biosphere turns from source to sink, it is very unlikely to rise to 100%. On the other hand, Hansen believes that we have already put too much extra CO2 into the ocean-atmosphere system and that we will have to, some day soon, take it out and sequester it. In that case, using the 100% figure is appropriate for the amount of CO2 that we will have to extract. The 240GtC figure he quoted in the NYT (last year in the Huffington Post he used a figure of 400GtC) is derived from the total bitumen-in-place, not the recoverable bitumen. Current recovery rates are around 50% for the most suitable reservoirs that have been chosen to exploited first and it seems unlikely, even with great improvements in technology, that the recovery rate for the unproven resources, which are located in thinner, deeper or less porous rocks, will exceed 50%. I would say that the 120ppm figure is too high by a factor of two and maybe even a factor of four. Which does not mean that I think developing the tar sands is inconsequential for the climate. On the contrary, an addition of 30-60ppm of CO2 from a single source is a very significant contribution towards the climate disaster that we are busy creating.See my blogpost Alberta’s bitumen sands: “negligible” climate effects, or the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”? for more detail.
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  10. Tom in QLD or Mr Keystone in AB, all can rightly claim that their share of emissions is "not disastrous". Classic tragedy of the Commons, like Great Stink of London in mid-1800. I'm amazed that people still did not learn anything from that event and after 150y+ still denying (e.g. more than half of REPs in US) the stink.
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  11. Dana, Another excellent post. It is hard to see the advantages of this type of energy. One of your links says "230,000 liters(600,000 gallons)" one of these numbers is wrong.
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  12. Thanks michael, that should have been 65,000 gallons. Text corrected.
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  13. Similar question as mandas: Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article says Canadian Tar Sands contain 240 gigatons of carbon (half the 2C budget; sure got my attention). This article says 1 gigatonne (billion tonnes). Huge difference. What am I missing here???
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  14. See page 3, paragraph 8 (of McKibben's article) for this 240 gigaton value.
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  15. sauerj I believe that the one billion tonnes figure was the EPA number for CO2e for the incremental well-to-tank emissions from the Keystone pipeline alone for its expected lifetime. The 240 gigaton value is the total tarsands carbon in the ground. As I argued earlier only a fraction of this is extractable. Further, only a fraction of this volume will be extracted over the lifetime of KXL and only a fraction of that will go through that particular pipeline. And I think the EPA only quoted the well-to- tank emissions, in other words, about 18 % of the total emissions of the well-to-wheels emissions, total carbon emissions. I am going on memory here, since I can't find the EPA report right now, so I am not able to quote actual figures and I should really check some of the assertions in the previous paragraph, but nevertheless I hope that I have suggested some reasons for the big discrepancy that you pointed out.
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  16. Andy S: I'm sorry, but I hastily skipped over your note above (my bad!). Reading both of your comments, clears things up for me. ... Even if the ultimate Tar Sands extraction was 50% or even 25% of 240 giga tons (per your comment above), this potential of 60 gigatons (vs the article's 1 gigaton) is alarming and should be, in my opinion, the reported number. The public needs to know what Tar Sands can ultimately do, not just what will be routed down the KXL. ... Thank you for clearing this up; this is a very important distinction.
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  17. I recently read a book “De ware energiefactuur” (I don’t think it’s available in English, but the title translates as “The true cost of energy”.) The author, Aviel Verbruggen, basically advocates that public property (nature, cultural heritage, the atmosphere, …), should be protected by law, the same way as private property. The laws of economy dictate that for all economical goods an equilibrium is reached in supply/demand, which is the cross section of the supply curve and the demand curve. However, if public property is priced 0 – it is available for free - the supply/demand equilibrium shifts to the far right (people keep consuming until the added value is 0, or until the resource is completely consumed). This is what is happening with with the tar sands in Canada: even though it costs an enormous amount of energy – e.g. burning of fossil fuels – to WIN fossil fuels, since the pollution of the atmosphere and the destruction of nature is “free”, it is still economically advantageous to do the exploitation. The solution is surprisingly simple: public property should be protected the same way as private property – everywhere in the world. Just like damaging private property is punished, damaging public property should also be punishable by law. Such a measure doesn’t disturb the market mechanism. On the contrary: it ensures a fair competition among producers, because it eliminates all unfair advantages. Concerning energy generation the conclusion is obviously that a carbon tax needs to be introduced globally. The tax should be equal to the social cost associated with the emission of CO2 . Energy generation methods that are carbon neutral (renewable energy) become more interesting than polluting ways of energy production. A very clear message from the book is also: Fighting climate change will NOT be successful by promoting renewable energy and by encouraging people to consume less energy. People on the left side of the political spectrum think they can appeal to the conscience of the people to reduce their ecological footprint. This doesn’t work– or it works for at most 5% of the population. The economic reality is that every person takes rational decisions to optimize his own profit, and there is no way to go against that force. Rather we should use this force to reach the envisioned goals. The only thing that really works is an economic stimulus: anyone who damages public property will have to pay the fine. It is a clear concept and a just concept as well. To what extent the earth will warm up is dependent on the amount of fossil fuels that are left in the earth’s crust. Fossil fuels will only be left in the ground if it is economically not profitable to exploit them. In a world with an ever growing population and an ever growing economy, demand for energy will continue to rise, and energy prices will rise, so there will always be a threshold at which it becomes economically interesting to exploit sources of fossil fuels unless the social cost – the damage society suffers- is added as a tax to the asking price.
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  18. As much as I respect James Hansen's achievements as a climatolgist, to say that proceeding with the development of the oil sands is game over for the climate, is, to coin a phrase, alarmist. James Hansen also says that we should never build anymore coal fired power plants. But does this mean that we should shut them down before zero emission replacements come on line? If enough of us truly cared about future generations, the answer may very well be, "Yes!" But "enough of us" means enough of us to win elections. But in the real world, in which the general public has yet been asked to make even the smallest sacrifice, climatologist are already facing death threats. If people saw their lights go out because we stopped burning coal, "cold turkey," the coal plants would be back on line so fast that it would make our heads spin. And a whole bunch of new coal plants will be under construction. Global warming is not a production problem, but a consumption problem. If we do not want to avoid an ever increasing dependence on non-conventional oil, we need to focus on the engine of oil sands growth, the consumer. Alberta can not stop people from driving smaller cars, or using alternate fuels, public transportation or renewable energy. In addition, we should be thankful that the oil sands are in a place where a candidate who questions global warming could lose an election. And if the oil sands were in Oklahoma, would Senator Inhofe allow Tulsa to build a waste to biofuels facility?
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  19. jyushchyshyn, If you "respect James Hansen" why are you making obviously false assertions about what he says? Please provide a reference to support your outrageous claim that Hansen supports shutting down coal plants before zero emission replacements come on line. Hansen says we should build replacements as fast as we can but does not support shutting down plants and causing blackouts. Straw man arguments are easy to make and easy to show are false. Why should I listen to anything you say when half of your post is obviously bunk? As for building more coal fired plants, look at India's power blackouts for a quick lesson. It is very difficult to obtain enough coal for plants already built. Where are you going to get the coal for new plants? Renewables can produce large amounts of energy if carbon is made to reflect its true cost.
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  20. michael sweet I never made any such claim.
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  21. michael sweet I never claimed that James Hansen or anyone else advocated shutting down coal plants before zero emission replacements come on line.
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  22. Jyushchyshyn: I am sorry, when you said "James Hansen also says that we should never build anymore coal fired power plants. But does this mean that we should shut them down before zero emission replacements come on line?" here I must have misunderstood you.
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