Does Tar Sand Oil Increase the Risk of Pipeline Spills?


By David Biello | Scientific American

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

An oil flood through an Arkansas subdivision on March 29 is just the most recent example of pipeline problems in the U.S. In recent weeks, months and years diesel has leaked from a pipeline into wetlands near Salt Lake City; oil has spilled into the Yellowstone River in Montana; and about 20,000 barrels of oil have spewed into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The question: Is the problem the pipelines themselves or what they carry?

The answer may be an unfortunate combination of the two. Certainly, the infrastructure has issues. The U.S. is crisscrossed by more than four million kilometers of such pipelines, many decades old. These pipelines spring hundreds of leaks every year, most small. The pipelines can fail for reasons ranging from a backhoe inadvertently striking one to the slow but steady weakening from corrosion. “It’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Susan Connolly, a resident of Marshall, Mich., right near where the Kalamazoo River spill occurred in 2010 as a result of external corrosion.

Critics charge that pipelines carrying diluted bitumen, or “dilbit”—a heavy oil extracted from tar sands mined in northern Alberta—pose a special risk because, compared with more conventional crude, they must operate at higher temperatures, which have been linked to increased corrosion. These pipelines also have to flow at higher pressures that may contribute to rupture as well. Environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) notes that pipelines in the upper Midwest that routinely carry oil from tar sands have spilled 3.6 times more oil per pipeline mile than the U.S. average. The Arkansas and Kalamazoo accidents both involved dilbit.

The chemistry of the tar sands oil could contribute to corrosion as well. In processing, the tar sands are boiled to separate the bitumen from the surrounding sand and water, and then mixed with diluent—light hydrocarbons produced along with natural gas—to make the oil less viscous and able to flow. But even so, the resulting dilbit is among the lowest in hydrogen as well as the most viscous, sulfurous and acidic form of oil produced today.

Some think the Arkansas spill could have resulted from just this combination of aged infrastructure and added stress from dilbit, although an exact cause has yet to be determined. The breached Pegasus Pipeline involved in the Arkansas incident can carry nearly 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Illinois to Texas. Originally constructed in the 1940s to bring Texas crude oil up to Illinois, it had been reversed in recent years to stream dilbit. The operator, ExxonMobil, retrofitted the 50-centimeter tube to compensate for the demands of pushing tar sand oil through in the opposite direction, but the higher temperatures and pressures may nonetheless have contributed to the rupture or sped up preexisting corrosion, suggest critics such as NRDC’s Anthony Swift.

A study from the Alberta government, however, casts doubt on the notion that dilbit is worse for pipelines than any other oil is. It found that dilbit is not corrosive at pipeline temperatures of as much as 65 degrees Celsius, although it is highly corrosive at refinery temperatures above 100 degrees C. Nor is the fine sand that remains in some of the dilbit eroding pipelines, though it does form sludges that must be cleaned. The higher temperature operation may even kill off the bacteria that help to corrode pipelines carrying other types of oil. “There is no evidence that dilbit causes more failure than conventional oil,” geologist John Zhou of the provincial government research firm Alberta Innovates said during an interview in November on a trip to the tar sands; Zhou helped prepare the Canadian province’s analysis of dilbit. The U.S. National Academies is currently studying the issue.

The good news for residents of Arkansas is that a dilbit spill on land may prove easier to clean than one in water. Thanks to its more viscous nature, Zhou says, “it’s not going to move very far on a spill”—as long as it does not get into waterways, as occurred in Michigan. Regardless, the sour smell of dilbit is likely to remain in the air of Mayflower, Ark., until all the diluent evaporates. “Before you get into town, you can already smell the oil,” says Glen Hooks of the Sierra Club Arkansas, who visited the spill site. “There is no reason to trust oil companies when they say pipelines are safe when there’s been spill after spill after spill.”

The mishap also highlights some of the concerns around the building of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which could carry 830,000 barrels per day of dilbit or other tar sands products 2,700 kilometers from Alberta to Texas. That pipeline would incorporate the latest technologies, such as epoxy coatings and electrical current to reduce corrosion. Yet, even brand-new pipelines can spring a leak: TransCanada’s Keystone I Pipeline, which began carrying dilbit from Alberta to the U.S. Midwest in phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpg (13)2010, has already suffered 14 different leaks (pdf).

Exxon’s Arkansas Tar Sands Spill: The Tar Sands Name Game


By Anthony Swift | Natural Resources Defense Council

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

As the American public becomes acquainted with images of tar sands flowing across lawns, driveways and streets of an Arkansas suburb near Little Rock (for video of the spill go here), Exxon is now making the claim that the crude spilled from its ruptured Pegasus pipeline isn’t technically tar sands. This attempt is reminiscent of the knots that Enbridge tied itself into to deny that the million gallons of tar sands it spilled into the Kalamazoo River weren’t actually tar sands. During that spill Kari Lydersen, a former Washington Post reporter covering the spill for OnEarth Magazine, helped break Enbridge CEO’s about-face,  when after denying that his company had spilled ‘tar sands” for two weeks, told the press:

“No, I haven’t said it’s not tar sand oil. What I indicated is that it was not what we have traditionally referred to as tar sands oil. … If it is part of the same geological formation, then I bow to that expert opinion. I’m not saying, ‘No, it’s not oil sands crude.’ It’s just not traditionally defined as that and viewed as that.” Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, August 12th, 2010

My colleague Josh Mogerman wrote in detail about Enbridge’s denial – and it seems that Exxon is borrowing Enbridge’s playbook in this case. Exxon has identified the crude spilled in Mayflower, Arkansas as Wabasca Heavy diluted bitumen. Now the company is making the case that the crude it spilled is not technically ‘tar sands.’ However, Exxon’s argument doesn’t stand close scrutiny. Let’s look at the key facts.

1. Wabasca Heavy diluted bitumen is produced in Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands region. I’ve included a map showing the Wabasca formation as oil sands rather than heavy oil. The map is from the Canadian Centre of Information – I would link to it but I took it from The Oil Sands Developers Group this morning and the Oil Sands Map section seems to have crashed since then.

2. Wabasca Heavy Diluted Bitumen is considered by the Alberta Government as tar sands.  In the Alberta Oil Sands Industry’s (AOSID) Spring 2012 Quarterly Update, the Alberta government makes the following characterizations of its tar sands resources:

“There are three major bitumen (or oil sands) deposits in Alberta. The largest is the Athabasca deposit, located in the province’s northeast in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The main population centre of the Athabasca deposit is the City of Fort McMurray. The second-largest oil sands deposit is referred to as Cold Lake, just south of Athabasca, with the main population centre the City of Cold Lake. The smallest oil sands deposit is known as Peace River, which is located in northwest central Alberta. A fourth deposit called Wabasca links to the Athabasca and is generally lumped in with that area.” (pg. 2)

And in its glossary, it defines “oil sands” as:

Bitumen-soaked sand, located in four geographic regions of Alberta: Athabasca, Wabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River. The Athabasca deposit is the largest encompassing more than 42,340 square kilometres. Total deposits of bitumen in Alberta are estimated at 1.7 trillion to 2.5 trillion barrels. (pg. 15)

3. Industry considers Wabasca Heavy diluted bitumen as tar sands. The Canadian oil industry’s crude quality clearinghouse doesn’t list Wabasca Heavy as a heavy conventional crude but as a diluted bitumen – the category for tar sands. In a recent report, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) referred to Wabasca as “oil sands.”

So given that:

  1. Wabasca Heavy is a diluted bitumen with the physical properties of tar sands;
  2. Wabasca Heavy is produced in the Athabasca tar sands region of Alberta
  3. Wabasca Heavy is considered by both the Alberta government and industry as tar sands.

How does Exxon argue Wabasca heavy is not in fact tar sands? Their argument seems to be based entirely on how Wabasca heavy is produced. Tar sands near the surface is essentially strip mined. When it isn’t nearly the surface, most companies heat water and flood the underground tar sands formations with steam in order to reduce the viscosity of (i.e. melt) the bitumen so it can be recovered from wells in a process called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD).

Exxon makes the point that Wabasca Heavy bitumen isn’t produced by either mining or SAGD, but a process called Solvent Assisted Production (SAP). In solvent assisted production you see, rather than flooding the underground formation with steam to reduce the viscosity of the tar sands bitumen, you flood the formation with a combination of water and polymer solvents to reduce the bitumen’s viscosity. And if you use water and polymer solvents instead of steam, rather than producing tar sands bitumen you get tar sands bitumen.

This transformative process appears to be based on the logic that flooding a reservoir with steam is unconventional while flooding it with water and polymer solvents is conventional. It’s also likely that the logic of Exxon’s argument is predicated on folks not following it quite this far. Cenovus itself, the company using SAP to produce tar sands, describes it as a process used hand-in-hand with typical SAGD methods to produce tar sands.

Coal is coal whether you use pick ax or shovel. Diluted bitumen tar sands is diluted bitumen tar sands whether you produce it using polymer solvents or steam. And that what was flowing down driveway in Mayflower, Arkansas this weekend.

Because ‘Bitumen is not Oil,’ Pipelines Carrying Tar Sands Crude Don’t Pay into US Oil Spill Fund


By CAROL LINNITT | DeSmog Canada

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

As Think Progress has just reported, a bizarre technicality allowed Exxon Mobil to avoid paying into the federal oil spill fund responsible for cleanup after the company’s Pegasus pipeline released 12,000 barrels of tar sands oil and water into the town of Mayflower, Arkansas.

According to a thirty-year-old law in the US, diluted bitumen coming from the Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil, meaning pipeline operators planning to transport the corrosive substance across the US – with proposed pipelines like the Keystone XL – are exempt from paying into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

News that Exxon was spared from contributing the 8-cents-per-barrel fee to the clean-up fund added insult to injury this week as cleanup crews discovered oil-soaked ducks covered in “low-quality Wabasca Heavy Crude from Alberta.” Yesterday officials said 10 live ducks were found covered in oil, as well as a number of oiled ducks already deceased.

Continue reading article and view photographs on originating site

Lobbyist appointed as Alberta’s new top energy regulator



Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

The Alberta government has appointed the founding president of the Canada’s most powerful oil and gas group as well as an active energy lobbyist to head its new energy regulator.

Gerald Protti, a long-time senior executive for Encana from 1995 and 2009, served as the inaugural president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP).

He is also registered as an active lobbyist for the Energy Policy Institute of Canada.

That lobby group, which disgraced senior Harper advisor Bruce Carson helped to set up (Carson served as vice chair), says on its website that it wants to make energy regulations more industry friendly: “Help design regulatory processes that aid, rather than impede, responsible energy development.”

(Carson, the 66-year-old former aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was the architect of Tories’ oil sands public relations strategy and will go to trial next summer on influence-peddling charges. He has a history of fraud convictions.)

The Redford government appointed Protti, who also has close ties to the Harper government, as industry advisor to the Alberta government on its Regulatory Enhancement Project.

That project is still designing a one-stop shop regulatory body for oil and gas that Protti now heads.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada was at a loss for words to describe the appointment.

“You’d think the Alberta government would want to gain credibility with an appointee that had a strong record of public service. But this move does nothing for the province’s credibility. It’s pure conflict of interest.”

Added Hudema: “By handing the fox the keys to the hen house, the Redford government has made a mockery of their claims to being a tough regulator. No one outside of Alberta is going to take the founder of the oil industry’s main lobby group seriously as an environmental regulator. It may be a cause for joy in corporate boardrooms, but it is our communities and our environment that will pay the price of this revolving door between government and industry.”

Edmonton-based lawyer Keith Wilson and many other critics have described new legislation(Bill 2) creating Alberta’s new energy regulator as an unfettered disaster for citizens who live near energy projects in rural Alberta.

According to Wilson, Bill 2 effectively takes away the rights landowners now have to contest and oppose projects not in the community interest. But the new regulator “now gets complete unfettered discretion in deciding whether landowners get any notice or can have any right to a hearing or other participation in the process. There is nothing in Bill 2 that creates any rights for landowners.”

Protti’s appointment may create a political storm in the province.

When then-Premier Ralph Klein tried to appoint another energy insider, former Amoco executive Sherrold Moore, as head of the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (now the Energy Resources Conservation Board) in 1998, public outrage forced the government to back down.

It finally appointed Neil McCrank, senior civil servant and lawyer, instead.

The appointment is not without precedent. B.C.’s oil and gas regulator, the Oil and Gas Commission, was actually set up by a former oil and gas lobbyist too.

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is both an Alberta landowner and a reporter.

Tar sands spill in Arkansas is a warning of the risks of tar sands pipelines


By Anthony Swift | Natural Resources Defense Council

Monday, April 01, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

On Friday afternoon, Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured, spilling between 80,000 and 420,000 gallons of tar sands diluted bitumen in a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas. In 2010, a similar tar sands diluted bitumen spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River watershed demonstrated that diluted bitumen spills were significantly more challenging to clean up and damaging to the environment, particularly water bodies, than conventional crude. Moreover, tar sands diluted bitumen pipelines typically operate at significantly higher temperatures than conventional crude pipelines, increasing their risk of rupture due to external corrosion and other factors. While details regarding the cause of the rupture and the magnitude of the spill are still coming in, the Mayflower tar sands spill is yet another demonstration of the risks that tar sands pipelines pose to the communities and sensitive water resources they cross. At about a tenth of the full capacity of the Keystone XL tar sands pipelines, the 90,000 bpd Pegasus pipeline rupture offers us a small sample of the risk that tar sands pipelines pose to American communities.

Tar sands diluted bitumen is substantially different from the conventional crude historically moved on the U.S. pipeline system. It is a combination of heavier than water bitumen tar sands and light, toxic natural gas liquids or other petrochemical diluents. Together, this mix is called diluted bitumen, a substance that is fifty to seventy times thicker than conventional crudes like West Texas Intermediate (North America’s benchmark crude) and moves at higher pipeline temperatures. High temperature pipelines have been demonstrated to be at a substantially higher risk of rupture due to external corrosion – a study of a small network of high temperature pipelines in California showed they were 23 times as likely to rupture due to external corrosion than conventional pipelines.

The Pegasus tar sands pipeline rupture adds to growing evidence that tar sands poses additional risks to our nation’s pipelines and communities. Canadian diluted bitumen tar sands was first moved on the U.S. pipeline system in the late nineties – primarily on pipelines in the northern Midwest. While U.S. regulators don’t differentiate between tar sands pipelines and conventional crude pipelines, States with pipelines that have moved the largest volumes of tar sands diluted bitumen for the longest period of time – North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan – have spilled 3.6 times as much crude per pipeline mile as the national average. And until late last year, Exxon’s 90,000 bpd Pegasus pipeline was the only pipeline to move Canadian diluted from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast.

Spill responders in Arkansas are making every effort to keep the tar sands out of nearby Lake Conway, an important drinking water source and recreational area. It is important that they do, because nearly three years after the tar sands spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, neither industry nor regulators have developed effective methods to contain tar sands spills in waterbodies. When diluted bitumen spills, the light natural gas liquid diluents evaporate, leaving the heavier that water bitumen to sink into the waterbody. Once it is under the water’s surface, conventional spill response methods are largely ineffective. After nearly three years and a billion dollars of cleanup activities in Kalamazoo, almost 40 miles of that river and a nearby lake are still contaminated.

The Mayflower tar sands spill is another warning of the potential costs of the tar sands industry’s reckless expansion plans. Nearly three years after the Kalamazoo river spill and tar sands pipeline companies are pushing ahead with major expansion plans without doing due diligence of the risks associated with tar sands diluted bitumen transport on pipelines.

Suncor Toxic Spill: A ten hour disaster


By Mike Hudema | Greenpeace Canada

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating sitesuncor

Yesterday night Suncor admitted that for 10-hrs on Monday, March 25th its pipe gushed, releasing toxic, chemically treated water into the environment and the Athabasca river, the drinking water supply for countless animals, birds and human populations like the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.

I want you to think about that for a minute.

In 10-hrs you could watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, walk out and still see the pipe spewing.

In 10-hrs you could watch 3 hockey games two of which went to overtime.

In 10-hrs you could fly from Edmonton to Toronto and back again.

10-hrs is a long time. It’s especially a long time if we are talking about a spill of water filled with toxic chemicals and especially if it’s your drinking water we’re talking about.

The Government of Alberta said that Suncor notified them of the toxic water spill at 1:45 pm and that the pipe was capped at 4:00 pm. That leaves 7 hrs and 45 mins unaccounted for. What happened during that 7 hrs? Did Suncor fail to report the incident immediately? Or did Suncor just not notice the toxic spill for 7 hrs? Yeses to either answer are more than worrying.

The company and the Alberta government still won’t release pictures of the spill. Instead we have only news releases with sparse details and claims of ‘negligible impact’. Suncor claims ‘negligible impact’ even though it says it doesn’t know what specific chemicals were in the water.

Maybe if we had the long promised independent monitoring system we would have some answers we could trust but it’s still years away from implementation and the Alberta government still hasn’t committed to its independence.

Companies and governments shouldn’t be able to get away with incidents like this. We deserve answers, we deserve accountability, and we deserve more than another toxic spill.

Please share this story so that the Alberta government can’t spread its tar sands greenwash across the continent. Act in whatever ways you can and soon when we call on you, stand with us against this horror show.

The Dirt :: March 19, 2013



Tuesday, March 19, 2013



“The provincial ad totally misses the point in identifying that greenhouse gas emissions are minimal when oilsands are extracted…. Today’s bottom line is whether taxpayers should be paying to lobby for projects instead of being welcome to effectively contribute to decision-making on them.”

~ Warren Fenton, Environment Canada’s former head of environmental impact assessment in western and northern Canada, writing about the Alberta government’s pro-Keystone XL ad in the New York Times


Canadian Conservatives Shill for Big Oil


It’s one thing for Big Oil to spend big bucks on advertising to promote big projects, but should Canadian governments be spending taxpayer dollars to promote a controversial pipeline in a foreign country?

Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives apparently think so. The Alberta government, which has been dominated by the Conservative’s for the forty years, paid the New York Times 30,000 taxpayer dollars to run a misleading advertisementmeant to promote TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline that a recent New York Times editorial condemned as something U.S. President Barack Obama “cannot in good conscience approve.”

The ad was purchased after the New York Times turned down the offer of a guest editorial from Alberta Premier Redford. Entitled “Keystone XL: The Choice of Reason,” the ad contained the logos of both the Province of Alberta and the Government of Canada. It claims that America’s desire to effectively balance strong environmental policy, energy security and economic health “mirrors” that of Alberta, a jurisdiction, the ad contends, that is a “responsible energy developer”. In a logical leap across the chasm of incredulity, it then suggests that approving Keystone XL is the “choice of reason,” a decision that should be made based on “science and fact” rather than the emotional opposition of the projects detractors.

Numerous Canadians expressed outrage that the Alberta government would spend taxpayers’ money on a disingenuous act of greenwashing to support a project that will largely benefit corporations without creating much in the way of employment or economic activity in America, a project that comes with significant environmental risks that will be borne by Americans (in the case of the inevitable spills) and the rest of the world (in the case of increased greenhouse emissions).

In a “featured” letter-to-the-editor in the Edmonton Journal, long-time Alberta resident and Environment Canada’s former head of environmental impact assessment in western and northern Canada Warren Fenton asks whether “Albertans and Canadians want such ads to be factual and not simply self-serving propaganda?”

“The provincial ad totally misses the point in identifying that greenhouse gas emissions are minimal when oilsands are extracted…. Today’s bottom line is whether taxpayers should be paying to lobby for projects instead of being welcome to effectively contribute to decision-making on them.”

In a recent editorial in The Hill Times, Mark Jaccard, a professor of Environmental Economics at Simon Fraser University, wrote that “my Canadian government and the tar sands industries who want Keystone argue that somehow, miraculously, increasing carbon polluting infrastructure will not increase carbon pollution. (George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth has nothing on these guys.) They argue that even without Keystone Alberta tar sands would be developed to the same extent. So you might as well approve Keystone – so the argument goes. But this is simply not true.”

Jaccard claims that Keystone would help tar sands producers expand output by 50 to 100 per cent, and that if it is not approved, output would stay constant.

“But this is where the magicians offer their next deception. They claim that even without Keystone tar sands production would increase because the oil would simply be shipped to China via a Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia. You might as well build Keystone and keep the oil from going to China, so the magicians argue. In fact, the likelihood of this is slim – and getting slimmer every day. The reason is British Columbia. My province is the Canadian, and perhaps the North American, epicenter of two important social movements – environmentalism and rights activism by aboriginal peoples.”

In the end, Jaccard concludes that Keystone XL should be rejected because it will hinder tar sands expansion and the doubling of greenhouse gas emissions it will cause, and that “believing otherwise is nothing more than a magician’s delusion. If U.S. policy makers don’t want to lock-in a Sandy-Katrina future for our children, rejecting Keystone is one of the most obvious and easiest steps.”

Canada’s federal Conservative Party of Canada, at least, had the good sense not to spend (more) taxpayer dollars shilling for Big Oil. Instead, the federal Tories have launched a pro-Keystone XL fundraising campaign so party members can donate their hard-earned cash to promote the Alberta and federal governments’ pet project. In its plea, Canada’s federal Conservative Party said it needs the money to compete against anti-Keystone arguments made in the U.S. recently by Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s official opposition, the New Democratic Party.

But Mulcair isn’t the only doubting Thomas. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) opposes the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and is calling for a full accounting of the public money spent lobbying for it.

“The Conservatives have spent millions of public dollars to push for a pipeline that will export Canadian jobs, trample First Nations rights undermine domestic industrial policy and is bad for the environment” said CEP National President Dave Coles. “In their obsession for this job-killing export pipeline, the Conservatives have even insinuated that the leader of the official opposition is a traitor,” said Coles. “They are so far out in left field on this issue and it is time they live up to the costs of their adventures down south.”

What self-respecting Conservative would donate money to an Orwellian disinformation campaign to support a job-killing pipeline project that would facilitate the doubling of greenhouse gases produced by the tar sands? Doesn’t seem very conservative to us.

Enbridge’s Nose Grows a lot Longer


By National Wildlife Federation

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

In a recent hearing to determine the fate of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project, Enbridge told regulators, decision makers and the public that tar sands oil floats in water. This is according to an industry backed study conducted in a lab.

The large problem for Enbridge is that they can’t hide from the real-life facts. Enbridge has the best (and worst) “study” right here in the Kalamazoo River, where they spilled around a million gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan waters. This spill has proven the exact opposite: tar sands oil sinks in fresh water!

This is not a little white lie: the fact that tar sands oil sinks in water is one of the biggest problems facing the industry and pipeline operators, proving that any spill of any kind into water is devastating, toxic andimpossible to clean-up. The hundreds of acres of submerged oil in the Kalamazoo River — that Enbridge can’t clean up — is case and point!

Steep Learning Curve for Tar Sands Spills

Michigan journalist Fritz Klug wrote about this very point almost two years ago:

“At minimum, we’re writing a chapter in the oil spill cleanup book on how to identify submerged oil,” [EPA incident commander Ralph] Dollhopf said. “We’re writing chapters on how it behaves once it does spill (and) how to recover it.”

What the EPA didn’t expect at the beginning of the spill last July was how much time they would spend extracting the heavier oil submerged in the bottom of the Kalamazoo River.

“In a situation where we don’t have to be concerned with submerged oil, then we clean up the oil on the surface and be done,” Dollhopf said.

This past fall, the EPA issued Enbridge another work order to address the hundreds of acres of submerged oil, but Enbridge is dismissing that order because they have no idea how to remove the oil from the bottom of the river without causing extreme habitat destruction.

When a tar sands pipeline spill occurs, all readily available equipment used to clean-up oil will only address oil floating on the surface of water. So, for any pipeline operator to say they know how to properly clean up tar sands crude — this is a flat out lie.

Again, this point is extremely important considering the flood of tar sands pipeline projects hitting the U.S.

Lawmakers in the Dark

Taking this a step further, the lack of acknowledgment by our decision makers and congressional members is a little shocking. Our leaders should be demanding that regulators and pipeline operators make immediate changes to spill response plans to address this very issue, and no tar sands pipelines should be expanded or constructed until issues like this are fully addressed. This should have been an outcry immediately following Enbridge’s spill — especially considering tar sands crude is already running through many pipelines that travel in and around the Great Lakes, which are the freshwater drinking source for millions or people and habitat for countless wildlife.

In fact, many members of Congress are ignoring the facts and trying to streamline massive tar sands pipeline projects, like Keystone XL, which will expose millions to the risk of spills and drive development in Canada’s tar sands region, one of the biggest threats to our global climate.

We are allowing Enbridge to cover up the facts with propaganda, which will continue to allow the industry to expand plans for transporting tar sands oil through some of the most sensitive areas in the world.

Fact-checking Canada’s record on climate change and the oilsands


By Clare Demerse | Pembina Institute

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

With consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal heading into the home stretch, a parade of Canadian politicians have been making the trek to the U.S. to try to convince the Obama Administration of the pipeline’s merits.

The good news is that the recent visitors — from Premiers Redford and Wall to federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — now acknowledge that Canada’s environmental record is crucial to the upcoming U.S. decision.

The bad news is that there are some gaping holes in that record.

Minister Oliver has called for pipeline decisions to be “based on science and facts, not conjecture, hyperbole or ideology.” In that spirit, surely it’s fair to put some of the assertions in Minister Oliver’s recent Chicago speech under the microscope.

“Current projections show that Canada is halfway to meeting” its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions target.

If you read that statement to mean that we’re “halfway there” right now, I have bad news for you. Environment Canada estimates that Canada will only be “halfway” to meeting its 2020 target in 2020 — meaning that we’re on track to miss the 2020 target by 113 million tonnes, or double the current emissions of British Columbia.

To date, the federal government has not published any plan or proposal to close that gap, and the trend line that Minister Oliver alludes to with his “halfway” assessment already factors in the effects of all existing federal and provincial climate policies.

“Total greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production represent 0.1 per cent, or one one-thousandth, of global emissions.”

No argument with the numbers themselves, but Joe Oliver isn’t in charge of climate change for the world; he’s the minister of Canada’s natural resources. And in the Canadian context, the oilsands play a starring role as the single fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution in this country.

Indeed, the projected growth from the oilsands sector alone from 2005 to 2020 is large enough to cancel out all other emission reductions taking place elsewhere in the Canadian economy over the same period. More than anything else, the oilsands explain why Canada is projected to miss its 2020 target by such a large margin.

“Once the federal regulations are in place, Canada will be one of a very few oil producers in the world with national binding regulations on its oil and gas sector.”

As Minister Oliver’s statement hints, the reality is that that there are currently no federal constraints of any kind on greenhouse gas pollution from Canada’s oil and gas sector. The government has proposed a variety of approaches to controlling Canada’s emissions since first taking power seven years ago, and made a specific commitment to a sectoral regulation for oil and gas in 2011, but there’s still nothing on the books. In other words, they’ve made their new year’s resolution (again), but they haven’t yet headed out the door to the gym.

If and when Canada does get a regulation into place, it will join numerous oil and gas producing jurisdictions that have already taken steps to tackle their emissions. We recently published a reportlisting some of those policies, which include carbon taxes in Norway and Australia and cap-and-trade systems in the European Union and California (not to mention carbon pricing in B.C. and Alberta).

Several of those policies are not specific to the oil and gas sector; instead, many of these jurisdictions have adopted economy-wide carbon pricing that includes oil and gas emissions. That kind of broad-based pollution pricing is economically efficient, flexible, and frankly the preferred policy option for many oil and gas companies. Unfortunately, it’s an approach that the Harper government continues to attack on a daily basis as a “job-killing” “tax on everything” — but that kind of rhetoric was conspicuously absent from Minister Oliver’s U.S. outreach.

“Canada’s oilsands are subject to some of the most stringent environmental regulations and monitoring in the world.”

That’s a bold claim from a government that spent much of the past year revising many of Canada’s most important environmental laws to make it easier for resource development to go ahead. The federal government has partnered with the Government of Alberta on a new approach to environmental monitoring that shows promise; unfortunately, budget wrangling and delay means that the new system is still not up and running.

We’ll stop there for now, although the federal government has provided plenty more material that merits a closer look — including its very rosy assessment of Canada’s coal regulations or the assertion that the Keystone XL project would be a huge job creator when the State Department’s recently-releasedsupplemental environmental impact statement found that operating the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline would create a total of 35 permanent jobs.

A year ago, the federal government’s emphasis was on faster project approvals, more oilsands development, and pipelines in all directions. It’s good news that scrutiny from the sector’s major customer has reminded our political leaders that environmental protection needs to be just as much of a priority.

The government’s rhetoric has already changed in response, but even the best speechwriters can’t make a compelling case when there’s little good material to work with.

Environment Minister Peter Kent said last week that the release of the long-promised oil and gas sector regulations is drawing near. It’s a crucial decision for Canada’s approach to climate change. And if Ottawa rises to the challenge by adopting tough rules, it’s also a high-profile opportunity for the government to write itself a better script.

The children: Why a generation is putting itself on the line for the climate


By Wen Stephenson | Grist

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I recently picked up a book that’s been sitting in my must-read pile for a long time: David Halberstam’s The Children, a remarkable account of the African-American students who began the momentous lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in February 1960 and went on to risk their lives as Freedom Riders and as movement leaders in Birmingham and Selma. Half a century on, it can be easy to forget that citizens of this country took such risks, and made such sacrifices, in order to gain basic human rights.

Still, I thought I knew the story. So I was startled to find myself pierced, on the very first page, by Halberstam’s description of one young woman’s inner struggle:

Years later, though she could recall almost every physical detail of what it had been like to sit there in that course on English literature, Diane Nash could remember nothing of what Professor Robert Hayden had said. What she remembered instead was her fear. A large clock on the wall had clicked slowly and loudly; each minute which was subtracted put her nearer to harm’s way. … It was always the last class that she attended on the days that she and her colleagues assembled before they went downtown and challenged the age-old segregation laws at the lunch counters in Nashville’s downtown shopping center.

Halberstam then describes Diane Nash’s memory of the night before the first sit-in, on Feb. 13, 1960:

On that evening, she had sat alone in her room at Fisk University. Suddenly she was hit with an overpowering attack of nerves. What had she gotten herself into? she wondered. … She, Diane Nash, a coward of the first order in her own mind, a person absolutely afraid not just of violence but of going to jail, was going to join a small group of black children and ministers and take on the most important and resourceful people in a big, very white, very Southern city….

It was a joke, she thought, it will never happen. We are a bunch of children. We’re nice children, bright and idealistic, but we are children and we are weak.

I think I know why those words pierced me the way they did. Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten acquainted, and at times worked closely, with a group of student climate activists in the Boston area.

The Dirt :: March 12, 2013



“A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem.”

~ the New York Times editorial board, writing about the Keystone XL pipeline

In this issue:

  • New York Times says no to Keystone XL
  • Debunking Canadian propaganda about the virtues of bitumen
  • Tar sands truth in Europe
  • Mothers and Methodists hold funeral at TransCanada office

The Keystone XL pipeline proposal was dealt yet another blow this week when the world’s most influential newspaper decried the project as dangerous and not in keeping with U.S. President Barack Obama’s commitment to doing whatever he can to limit the impacts of climate change.

“A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem,” wrote the New York Timeseditorial board on Sunday. “Saying no to the pipeline will not stop Canada from developing the tar sands, but it will force the construction of new pipelines through Canada itself. And that will require Canadians to play a larger role in deciding whether a massive expansion of tar sands development is prudent. At the very least, saying no to the Keystone XL will slow down plans to triple tar sands production from just under two million barrels a day now to six million barrels a day by 2030.”

The Times editorial was accompanied by a column from well-known columnist and author Thomas Friedman. In “No to Keystone. Yes to Crazy.”, Friedman wrote that he hopes President Obama turns down TransCanada’s proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline across the Midwest so the “dirtiest crude” from Alberta’s tar sands can be exported to overseas markets.

Friedman added that if the president does approve the pipeline, “I hope that Bill McKibben and his coalition go crazy. I’m talking chain-themselves-to-the-White-House-fence-stop-traffic-at-the-Capitol kind of crazy, because I think if we all make enough noise about this, we might be able to trade a lousy Keystone pipeline for some really good systemic responses to climate change.”

The New York Times position comes as  more analysis of the State Department’s draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) finds that it debunks many of the arguments used by the pipeline’s supporters to justify the need for the Keystone XL pipeline. Champions of Keystone XL argue that it is essential to delivering jobs, oil and energy security, but the SEIS concluded that “not building the pipeline would have almost no impact on jobs; on US oil supply; on heavy oil supply for Gulf Coast refineries; or even on the amount of oil sands extracted in Alberta.”

The draft SEIS found that Keystone XL would only create 35 permanent jobs in the U.S. and have “negligible socioeconomic impact.” What about energy security? According to the draft SEIS, “the increase in U.S. production of crude oil and the reduced U.S. demand for transportation fuels will likely reduce the demand for total U.S. crude oil imports.” Which means that if Keystone XL is denied, it “would not substantially influence the … overall volume of crude oil transported to the United States or refined in the United States.” Besides, if Keystone XL is built, the oil it ferries to the Gulf Coast will be exported overseas, not kept in America to increase so-called “energy security.”

The biggest criticism of the draft SEIS, however, is that the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would have no measurable climate change impacts, because tar sands expansion would continue anyways, as producers found other ways to transport their dirty crude to market. This framing, says Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School, is “not in keeping with the letter or the spirit” of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

According to Inside Climate News, the Environmental Protection Agency, which plays an important role in rating the performance of other agencies in performing environmental assessments under NEPA, has repeatedly urged the State Department to focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and how to offset them if Keystone were to get the green light.

“The fundamental question for State should have been, will this pipeline lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions?” said Danielle Droitsch, an environmental lawyer and director of the Canada project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading pipeline opponent. “We don’t have to go through this circular, roundabout argument. It’s just a really, really nice way to escape doing that analysis.”

“It stands the whole concept of examining the consequences of your actions on its head, it really does,” Parenteau told Inside Climate News. “There is going to be litigation if this is approved.”

Read more on the climate impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline at Inside Climate News.

In the latest attempt to greenwash the tar sands, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has been roaming the United States trying to convince American politicians and thought leaders that Alberta’s dirty crude is a clean, responsible, sustainable – even “green” – source of energy, and that Canada’s environmental record and climate change policy are as good as it gets.

“The oil sands are a greener alternative than some other sources from around the world,” Oliver said in news conferenceafter delivering a speech touting the merits of the Keystone XL pipeline to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “I’m here to give you the unvarnished goods – and to let you make up your own mind about the merits of Canadian oil for America. Canada is the environmentally responsible choice for the U.S. to meet its energy needs in oil for years to come.”

If Oliver’s comments about Canada’s environmental record have left you confused, it’s worth reading some responses to his nonsense. In anop-ed in the Globe and Mail, Tzeporah Berman invoked George Orwell in an attempt to set the record straight. “At a time when climate scientists are urgently telling us to significantly scale back the burning of fossil fuels, having a minister promote exactly the opposite really does feel like being told that two plus two equals five.”

Berman, author of This Crazy Time and co-founder of ForestEthics, pointed out that every independent study, including one from the U.S. Department of Energy, has found that the oil sands are one of the world’s dirtiest forms of oil, producing three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel produced, and 22 per cent more than conventional oil when their full life cycle of emissions, including burning them in a vehicle, is included.

She also noted that Oliver failed to mention that even his government’s own reports from Environment Canada have said that Canada will not meet its climate-pollution targets because of oil sands expansion. In fact, climate pollution from the oil sands has doubled in the last decade and is predicted to double again in the next decade if all the new development is allowed to go ahead. The truth is, wrote Berman, “we still have no federal rules to reduce climate pollution from the oil sands.”

Berman wasn’t the only one taking Mr. Oliver to task. Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands and The Energy of Slaves, also pointed out the “extraordinary and popular delusions” being purveyed by Oliver and other Canadian politicians. Invoking the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Mackay, Nikiforuk decried Canada’s “slavish [tar sands] promoters for omit[ing] the troubling facts as hawkers do. They said nothing, for example, about bitumen’s poor quality, unending carbon liabilities, soaring costs and appalling energy returns. They also lied about Canada’s pathetic environmental record.”

Not to be outdone, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair made a whirlwind tour to Washington, D.C., telling anyone who cares to listen (and many who don’t) that the Canadian government is “playing people for fools” by claiming that its environmental record is world class and that it cares about climate change.

“In the U.S. people know how to read,” he told the National Post. “They know that Canada is the only country that has withdrawn from Kyoto. They know that the Conservatives can’t possibly meet their Copenhagen targets (on greenhouse gas emissions) precisely because of the oilsands. They have to stop playing people for fools.”

That pretty much puts to rest the validity of Oliver’s claims. Let’s hope that Americans can, indeed, see through the federal government’s delusional self-promotion.

Tar sands truth in Europe

Europe may be far across the sea, but it’s not so far that Canada’s relentless tar sands promoters are safe from those who oppose the dirty stuff. Gordon Campbell, Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, was greeted with protests at Oxford University recently, where he delivered a seminar entitled “New World, New Mind”.

Organized by Tar-Free Oxford, local community members held a banner that read “Keep Tar Sands out of Europe” as Campbell arrived to deliver a seminar at the college. “Canada is promoting tar sands oil as a clean and ethical energy source, when we know that the exact opposite is the case,” said Suzanne Dhaliwal, from the UK Tar Sands Network. “Entire ecosystems are being destroyed and communities are being devastated in order to extract this highly polluting source of oil.”

Organizers are concerned about Canada’s relentless lobbying against a key piece of EU climate policy, the Fuel Quality Directive, which aims to reduce imports of highly polluting fuels such as tar sands and synthetic oil from coal into Europe.

In Berlin, Dene Nation Chief Bill Erasmus disrupted an event at the Canadian embassy linked to a large tourism expo to draw attention to Canada’s poor tars sands development record. Tourism officials from Alberta and other parts of Canada were in Berlin promoting the natural beauty of Alberta and B.C.

Erasmus delivered a letter to tourism officials explaining his people’s concerns about the tar sands. “We are not against economic development in Canada or Alberta, but tar sands extraction is polluting our rivers, destroying our natural resources and thus the economic basis of our survival – and yours. This is a model of economic development, tied to boom and bust cycles, which will not bring lasting prosperity to our country. What we need is a sustainable economic model for a diversified economy that does not depend on exporting fossil fuels.

“The Canadian government is heavily lobbying European countries to derail European climate change efforts, such as the Fuel Quality Directive aimed at reducing emissions from imported transport fuels. This is wrong; Canada is interfering in the European legislative process and needs to accept the proposed criteria. Environment and climate are our joint responsibility and we need to protect them. For us, for our children and for the tourists we want to come to our home.”

A large graphic was projected on the building that houses the Canadian Embassy in Berlin (see photo at the top of this post). “You can look away,” it read. “Tourists won’t. Stand up against the tar sands.”


Mothers and Methodists hold funeral at TransCanada office


Debunking Canadian propaganda about the virtues of bitumen


New York Times says no to Keystone XL

The State Department review shows Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest


By Susan Casey-Lefkowitz | Natural Resources Defense Council

Monday, March 11, 2013

A deeper dive into the State Department draft environmental review shows that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not needed. The energy security argument for the pipeline, always dubious, has evaporated to the point where even the State Department cannot find a reason to build it. The draft also confirms that the Keystone XL is not an economic recovery plan, since it will create only 35 permanent jobs and 3,900 construction jobs. It won’t help consumers since far from bringing new oil to the US, it is meant to relieve a glut and raise oil prices. Instead the State Department found that the project will benefit oil companies by giving them access to the higher oil prices in overseas markets, making new tar sands projects more worth their while. Yet, it is Americans who carry the risks of tar sands oil spills in our rivers and aquifers and worsening climate change. What the State Department got dead wrong is their mistaken assumption that Keystone XL would not drive tar sands expansion. The review used this assumption to get out of any meaningful consideration of the climate pollution from tar sands expansion, and in this time of worsening climate change that is not acceptable. Rejection of Keystone XL is an easy and necessary choice for America. As European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said, rejection of Keystone XL would send a strong message internationally that the US is serious about fighting climate change.

Let’s take a closer look at the draft environmental review:

Keystone XL’s 35 permanent jobs and 3,900 construction jobs are not an economic recovery plan

The State Department review once again shows how TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute and other proponents of the pipeline have vastly overstated the number of jobs that will be created by Keystone XL. The State Department, based on TransCanada’s own numbers, shows that at the most 3,900 construction jobs will be created in building the pipeline with only 10% of the total workforce hired locally. Only 35 permanent jobs will be created by the pipeline. What is more, the State Department ignores the potentially negative impacts of pipeline spills, spills into freshwater supplies or increases in climate and other pollution on employment and the economy. Farming, ranching, and tourism are major sources of employment along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed route – approximately 571,000 workers are directly employed in the agricultural sector in the states along the Keystone XL corridor. Water contamination resulting from a Keystone XL spill, or the cumulative impact of spills over the lifetime of the pipeline, would have significant economic costs.

We can do better. As a result of our clean energy industry’s rapid growth and effective state and federal policies, clean energy projects and programs currently in progress are creating thousands of jobs in communities across the country without the risk.  And many more shovel ready projects could be brought online if our policymakers are willing to send clear market signals and level the playing field for clean energy options to move forward.

Keystone XL’s path to export means less economic and energy security for the US, not more

Continue reading on blog’s originating site

On the wrong track: Rail is not an alternative to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline


By Anthony Swift | Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

In its recently released draft environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast for export, the State Department attempts to make the case that rail could be a viable alternative. The State Department argued that Keystone XL would have little effect on tar sands production because rail could provide an equally feasible and economic transportation option for tar sands. This is a critical element of the draft environmental review because while State determined that tar sands is dirtier than conventional oil, it concludes that Keystone XL would have little impact on the expansion of tar sands and therefore policymakers and the public needn’t consider the impacts of that expansion. However, State’s assumptions are on the wrong track. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will drive tar sands expansion. Expansion depends on tar sands being able to reach the high prices of overseas markets. But pipelines to the east and west are stalled and rail – as we will show here – is not an economically viable alternative to Keystone XL. And without Keystone XL, financial analysts are already saying that the tar sands industry’s expansion plan will go off the rails.

In its most recent environmental review, the State Department is repeating its argument that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will have limited impact on greenhouse gas emissions because rail transport is an economically feasible alternative. State made several flawed assumptions in its environmental review, including 1) an unrealistically low cost for transporting tar sands by rail from Alberta to Texas, 2) an inaccurate estimate of tar sands production costs and 3) an unrealistic assumption that tar sands production costs will not increase with rising labor, material and energy prices.  In its analysis, State relies on statistics that pertain to rail transport of shale oil from North Dakota but that do not apply to Alberta’s tar sands. Given the unfeasibility of transporting large quantities of tar sands by rail and the massive opposition to tar sands pipelines to the East and West coast of Canada, Keystone XL is the lynchpin for significant expansion of the tar sands – and industry analysts agree. Tar sands is expensive to extract and process – with breakeven prices approaching $100 per barrel – and cheap transportation is required to make new projects profitable. Without Keystone XL and the cheap transportation it provides, the tar sands industry will not reach its goal of tripling production by 2030 and the significant climate emissions that come with it.

Oil Sands Mining Uses Up Almost as Much Energy as It Produces


By Rachel Nuwer | InsideClimate News

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Read this blog post on the originating site

The average “energy returned on investment,” or EROI, for conventional oil is roughly 25:1. In other words, 25 units of oil-based energy are obtained for every one unit of other energy that is invested to extract it.
But tar sands oil is in a category all its own.

Tar sands retrieved by surface mining has an EROI of only about 5:1, according to research released Tuesday. Tar sands retrieved from deeper beneath the earth, through steam injection, fares even worse, with a maximum average ratio of just 2.9 to 1. That means one unit of natural gas is needed to create less than three units of oil-based energy.
“They have to use a lot of natural gas to upgrade this heavy, sticky, gooky almost tar-like stuff to make it fluid enough to use,” said Charles Hall, a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Hydrogen from gas heats the tar sands so the viscous form of petroleum it contains, known as bitumen, can be liquefied and pumped out of the ground. In this way, Hall said, gas helps turn tar sands “into something a bit closer to what we call oil.”

With most of the world’s highest quality resources already exhausted, companies are turning to formerly undesirable alternatives such as tar sands oil, which come with higher energetic price tags yet lower returns.
“We built our nation, economy and civilization on cheap energy—that’s where this incredible growth of the U.S. economy has come from,” said Hall, who coined the term EROI in 1979. “But that characteristic high energy return on investment fuel from much of the last century is no longer here.”

The latest EROI values for tar sands were calculated by David Hughes, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a non-profit devoted to issues such as climate change and energy scarcity, based in Santa Rosa, Calif. The institute released Hughes’ findings on Tuesday.
Hughes’ figures include the energy it takes to mine bitumen as well as to upgrade it to synthetic oil that can be put into a refinery. It also includes the liquefied natural gas used to turn it into dilbit (diluted bitumen) so it can flow through pipelines.

Hall, who wasn’t involved in Hughes’ study, thinks the EROI for oil sands would fall closer to 1:1 if the tar sands’ full life cycle—including transportation, refinement into higher quality products, end use efficiency and environmental costs—was taken into account.
Travis Davies, manager of media and issues at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, disputes Hughes’ calculations. He said oil sands create 6 to 10 energy units for each energy unit used, but he did not cite a source for those figures.

Both Hughes and Hall think the new data should be factored into the debate over Canada’s tar sands reserves, which cover an area about the size of Florida. Environmentalists argue that the oil sands should be left in the ground, because they produce much more carbon than other fossil fuels. The industry, supported by the Canadian government, says the oil sands are crucial to Canada’s economy and can provide the United States with a reliable source of fuel from a friendly neighbor.
What isn’t often mentioned, Hughes said, is the energy required to extract the oil, or the rate at which it can feasibly be recovered.

“Unless we talk about all three metrics—size of the resource, net energy and rate of supply—we’re not getting the full story,” he said.

Canada’s Oil Sands Boom

The world currently burns through an estimated 88.25 million barrels of oil per day. As the supply of sweet, light crude diminishes, it is being replaced by unconventional alternatives, including tar sands.

Most unconventional energy sources have much lower efficiencies than conventional gas and oil, which operate at a combined energy-returned-on-investment ratio of about 18:1. Shale gas, for example, performs at about 6.5:1 to 7.6:1—a bit better than the 2.9:1 to 5.1 for tar sands oil. Corn ethanol, with an EROI of about 1.3:1, sits at the bottom of the barrel for investment pay off.

“If you accept the fact that fossil fuels are finite—and I think most people would—then using a lot more fossil fuels for recovering energy as opposed to doing actual work basically uses them up quicker with no net payback in terms of useful work,” Hughes said. “It’s an issue of diminishing returns.”

Canada is touted as having the third largest oil reserves in the world. But its supply of conventional oil is shrinking, and oil sands extraction has been growing fast in the past decade, from about 700,000 barrels per day in 2000 to 1.7 million today.

Hughes based his calculations on the 25.6 billion barrels of Canadian tar sands oil that are currently under active development. What concerns him more is the EROI of the estimated 143 billion additional barrels of oil sands that are sitting under Alberta’s boreal forests, especially since only 8 percent of that oil is accessible via surface mining.

“Those EROI numbers are going to go down as we move away from the highest quality to the lesser quality parts of the resource,” Hughes said. “I’d expect that downward shift to probably start about now.”

When the entire life cycle of the fuels is considered—including production, transportation and burning the final product— the greenhouse gas differential between conventional oil and tar sands oil is about 20 percent, according to a 2011 study from Stanford University.

While no rigorous studies have been conducted on the association between diminishing EROI values and increased greenhouse gas emissions, Hughes thinks “it’s a pretty safe assumption to make” that they are linked.

Those emissions are only going to increase as Canada ramps up to the 5 million barrels per day already approved for extraction, said Simon Dyer, policy director for the Pembina Institute, a Canadian non-profit focused on developing sustainable energy solutions.

“The impacts today are actually irrelevant compared to the tripling of emissions that hasn’t yet expressed itself on the landscape,” Dyer said. “At a time when we need to be de-carbonizing our economy and making moves to lower our sources of carbon energy, clearly oil sands are a step in the wrong direction.”

More Than Just Dollars

Whether mining tar sands oil makes sense financially, depends on the world market price of oil—and on whether a company has already paid off its infrastructure costs or is building a new mine.

With the current price of synthetic crude oil sometimes dipping as low as $30 per barrel, a company that has paid off its infrastructure can still make a profit. For a company that’s still building, however, the market price would have to be about $100 per barrel in order to justify construction, Hughes said.

“Cost-wise, this is the most expensive oil being produced today,” Dyer said. “It’s a pretty clear indicator that our solution to energy needs is not chasing lower and lower quality fossil fuel resources that come with higher impacts.”

If oil sands oil eventually finds an easy outlet to the Gulf Coast—perhaps through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project—the price for upgraded synthetic oil will likely rise to reflect the world market value, currently $110 per barrel.

Profitability aside, the development of Canada’s oil sands reserves will never offset declines in crude oil. At the world’s current rate of oil consumption—32.2 billion barrels per year—Canada’s tar sands oil reserves remain at a finite 168.6 billion barrels, enough to keep the world fueled for less than six years.