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The Unenlightening Oil/Tar Sands Debate

by Michael Levi
April 8, 2011

The oil sands debate is heating up again. At the center is a fight over whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

I’ll probably have more to say later about exactly how I feel about the project. For now, though, I want to look at how silly much of the debate has become.

The New York Times – in an editorial from a couple weeks ago and a letter in response printed today – provides a full tour of how tenuously connected to reality the discussion is.

Here are some snippets from the editorial, “No to a New Tar Sands Pipeline”:

“The Energy Department says… there is already sufficient pipeline capacity to double United States imports from Canada.”

Yes, but that capacity basically leads to nowhere. (More precisely, it leads to Cushing, OK, which is already overflowing.) Ultimately, other pipelines will need to take the material away, or it will need to be moved by truck, hardly a safer outcome. On top of that, Keystone isn’t just about Canada – it would pick up significant amounts of oil from North Dakota, which would otherwise be stranded.

There’s more:

“The E.P.A. estimates that the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil — even without counting the destruction of forests that sequester carbon — are 82 percent greater than those produced by conventional crude oil.”

Right – but most of the emissions from oil come from using it, not producing it. Production emissions from the oil sands are equal to about half a percent of total U.S. emissions.

And then there’s the question of leaks:

“In the United States, the biggest potential problem is pipeline leaks. The Keystone XL would carry bitumen — which is more corrosive than crude oil — thinned with other petroleum condensates and then pumped at high pressure and at a temperature of more than 150 degrees through the pipeline.”

Perhaps (though I’m skeptical that this can’t be dealt with by a well designed pipeline).  But if the Times is right, and this stuff will be transported to the United States through other pipelines anyhow, it’s not clear why blocking Keystone would do anything about it.

But misleading rhetoric and logic is not something that’s restricted to one side of the debate. On to the letter in response, written by the president of TransCanada, which hopes to build the pipeline. Here’s the core of his argument:

“As oil prices continue to top the $100-per-barrel mark and gasoline prices hover around $4 a gallon, American consumers are becoming increasingly concerned. Strife and instability in the Middle East are causing the United States to look for more secure supplies of oil…. The United States has a choice: receive oil from a stable, friendly nation in Canada or get oil from volatile, unfriendly regimes overseas.”

Back to reality: the price of Canadian oil goes up and down with world price. Turmoil in the Middle East means that Canadian oil prices rise; suggesting otherwise is silly. If TransCanada wants to attempt a coherent case for Keystone, it needs to ditch this ridiculous trope.

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  • Posted by andrewo

    On the ability to engineer a way around the question of leaks, I found that based on expectations for the Keystone segment already in the ground in South Dakota, we’re looking at an average expectation of 0.37 barrels per mile per year….implying ~60,000 barrels to be leaked over the length and lifetime of the line.* This is undoubtably better performance than most pipelines, but if the “national interest” argument can be satisfied by a Cushing-Houston route, I think these rest of the miles would be better avoided.

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