Petroleum, Petroleum, Who’s Got the Petroleum?

Here’s how desperate we have become for petroleum products from any source: We’ve moved to seriously talking about exploiting oil sands for their petroleum content. Also known as tar sands, oil sands are those things I remember reading about ten years ago in articles talking about ridiculously difficult-to-access petroleum deposits, with a side of ‘at least we’ll never actually be desperate enough to try this.’ Today, Canada’s oil sands are being eyed by a number of corporations, to considerable opposition from communities worried about pollution, the ludicrously high expense involved, seizure of land belonging to First Nations communities, and so much more.

This is bad year for the oil industry, reputation-wise. After the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf and the Montana pipeline rupture, many members of the public are not viewing the oil industry very favorably, to say the least. Nuclear power, once touted and embraced as a clean alternative, is also getting the hairy eyeball after the Fukushima disaster and the revelation that numerous nuclear power plants around the world are in need of maintenance, repair, and upgrades. And alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro are simply not developing fast enough to satisfy our growing need for energy, even with green jobs initiatives attempting to pump labour and capital into the industry.

So we come back to oil sands. Oil sands, incidentally, don’t actually contain oil as you might think of it. They contain bituminous material, which would be classified after processing, at best, as ‘extra-heavy’ crude. Not like the valuable light sweet crude that can be processed into all sorts of things. For tar sands, we are literally scraping the bottom of the barrel with a laborious extraction and purification process, followed by costly transport to get it where it needs to go. The expenses of oil transport are nothing new, of course; pipelines, tankers, and railyards across the world handle transportation of petroleum and its products; it’s sort of like the icing on a very tarry cake. But in this case, the transport issue is critically important.

Much of the discussion about tar sands has focused on Canada, understandably, because that’s where some of the richest deposits are. Environmentalists with concerns about the issue are well aware that ecological threats do not respect international borders, which is reason enough to be concerned even if you aren’t worried about the impact of tar sands processing on the residents, and environment, of Canada. But, as it turns out, the tar sands threat isn’t confined to our neighbours to the north; the pipeline that is going to carry the products will be passing through regions of the United States.

Keystone XL is a behemoth of an oil pipeline, a whopping meter in diameter, proposed to cross much of the US with oil in a pressurized, heated state (because that’s the only way you can get it to move). Keystone XL will be snaking its way down to the Gulf with a payload of oil that Carrie La Seur points out comes with a risk we haven’t dealt with in the transport of light sweet crude: It’s heavy.

When an oil pipeline springs a leak, the oil follows the path of least resistance, which eventually ends in a waterway. Often quite close to a waterway, because watersheds make natural pathways for roads, pipelines, and other transport methods; why go over the mountains when you can go through the valley? In the case of lighter varieties of crude oil, much of the oil floats, as seen in the Gulf this spring with the widening oil slick courtesy of BP. This heavy oil will sink, and when it sinks, it is much more difficult to get out of the natural environment. You can’t clean it up with booms and skimmers.

The pipeline will be moving across the Great Plains, an area that tends to get scant political attention and is treated as ‘middle America.’ The Great Plains may be the breadbasket of the United States, but it’s treated as a cultural and political void. Which means that there’s been very little attention paid to the efforts of farmers in this region who are protesting the pipeline, let alone support from environmental organizations. I wouldn’t have known about the protests if I hadn’t happened to fall upon a Grist article on the topic, and that’s with following the tar sands situation (I, like many others, have focused on what is going on in Canada).

Plains Justice has released some chilling reports that illustrate the severity of this problem. How worried should we be about leaks? Very, because the first test section is already leaking. Are we prepared to deal with leaks? The equipment and supplies needed to handle leaks appear to be woefully inadequate. Did I mention that the pipeline is going through major watersheds relied upon as sources of clean drinking water? And that it’s crossing native land? And that TransCanada is using bullying and threatening tactics in an attempt to force farmers and communities to agree to oil pipeline easements, threatening to push to have their land condemned if they don’t comply?

This is a nation that is very disconnected from its farming communities and food sources, which means that the real meaning of the tar sands pipeline is at a remove from many of us along the coasts, where environmental activism tends to be robust, and where people have the money, energy, and time to back that activism up. The tar sands pipeline is a bad thing for the United States because of what it represents; the depredation of land and lives, pollution, abusive corporate tactics, and slippery uses of eminent domain and other legal bullying techniques that are growing increasingly common as power is consolidated in the hands of wealthy corporations. We should be afraid of what the tar sands pipeline means for this country.