Sans Tar Sands

What does the Keystone XL pipeline mean to you? Unless you have been schooled in the process of producing oil from tar sands and transporting it, along with the deadly mess it leaves, you probably don’t know. Fortunately, with a little effort of discovery, there is enough proof of its costs. Some are quite deadly.

Billions of dollars can be made by exploiters we love to hate, like the Koch brothers. Their interest in the Keystone XL pipeline is not based on patriotism. It is based on greed. In this space, we can’t possibly name all their holdings, only a few. First is ownership of 220,000 net acres of many undeveloped oil sands properties within Alberta’s vast reserves. Next is several decades of building the dirtiest refineries in South Texas, according to an article by Melissa del Bosque and Jen Reel. Surprise, surprise – the Keystone Pipeline, which they mightily support, would connect these ventures.

Charles and David Koch are a dynamic duo, replacing Dick Cheney as the “dark force.” Dick Cheney was only Vice President, throwing contracts at his former company, Halliburton, laying the framework to legalize the Halliburton fracking process, fighting a fake war, and he still has a forum to misinform.

In contrast, the Kochs are secretly spending hundreds of millions to replace our whole government – state and federal level — with their puppets. They already have the Supreme Court, many state governments, a few universities, and the House of Representatives.

But how bad are the tar sands? Let’s start with a satellite map of Athabasca, the largest oil sand field in Canada. At Athabasca, sand coated in water and a sticky film of bitumen, a heavy oil, is at or near the surface. Oil companies scoop the sand from the surface, stripping off vegetation and top soil. Refineries separate the bitumen from the sand with heated water, coming from the Athabasca River. The resulting contaminated water can’t be returned to the river, so it is put in tailing ponds, which replace dark green boreal forest.

An Environment Canada study from last February confirmed that the tailing ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie River before flowing into the Arctic Ocean. The Nation 9/29/2014 article, “Tarred Industry,” speaks of 1,600 dead migrating ducks which in 2008 landed in tailing ponds of “this toxic soup of arsenic, mercury and carcinogenic hydrocarbons.” Cannon fire now scares them away before they land and die. Worse, in 2006, downstream Fort McMurray’s sole doctor, John O’Connor went public about “the high rate of rare cancers in the community.”

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), mining of tar sands has disturbed nearly 300 square miles of forest and peat marsh. It has created more than 70 square miles of toxic settling ponds, most awaiting cleanup. Furthermore, it varies, but some estimates say that that the energy to produce almost 6 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) of oil (from oil sands) is over 3 million BTUs, and that doesn’t even consider the health and environmental costs.

Consider just the visible effects and the environmental hazards posed by pollutants produced. The so-called petcoke, a by-product of tar-sands refineries in this case operated by Koch Industries, piled up in Chicago’s Southeast Side. Black, thick dust was blowing in many neighborhoods, invading homes, polluting the river and blackening skies, at the least causing asthma attacks.

We can also trace Koch holdings far South to Corpus Christi, at Flint Hills Resources where the refinery belches benzene, butadiene and sulfuric acid. Children near the refinery, with parents too poor to move, cough and vomit, air too toxic to breathe.

Then there are continuous smears on the tar sands industry safety records. In one week last year, a tailing pond pipe broke and leaked toxic chemicals into the Athabasca River, the main source of drinking water downstream; a train derailed spilling 30,000 gallons of oil in Minnesota; and an ExxonMobil oil pipeline burst sending 80,000 gallons of tar sand crude down the streets of Mayflower, Arkansas.

Outdated DOT-111 tank cars carry crude oil, cars which tend to rupture easily, proven by accidents in Casselton, North Dakota, Pickens County, Alabama, and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the latter causing great devastation and the loss of 47 lives. This includes only a few of the accidents.

Train transportation of crude oil will increase, but without more pipelines, it will increase dramatically. American shipments of Bakken shale oil has increased tenfold since 2011 to over 800,000 barrels per day. Canada’s railroads will increase from 500 carloads in 2009 to over 200,000, especially if production continues without more pipelines.

Valero Energy Corp alone intends to construct a 50-car rail unloading system to import 60,000 barrels of tar sands diluted bitumen (dilbit) per day into their Ultramar Wilmington Refinery in the Harbor Area of LA. Dilbit, heavier in toxic emissions, will surely worsen LA air.

In the backdrop of all of this, the Global Carbon Project and UN’s IPCC says that we need to leave over 50% of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) in the ground to avoid a greater than 2 degree C increase in Earth’s temperature.

Considering the operations worldwide of fossil fuel extraction, including the dirty tar sands oil, it is more than ironic that fossil fuel companies are spending $500 billion per year to find new fossil fuel deposits.

We have mentioned only a few locations affected by just tar sands oil production: where refineries are located, storage sites for petcoke, tank cars ruptures, the poisoning of drinking water, and pipelines ruptures. Or is that just a few? Reportedly, we can even extend the destruction worldwide by just continuing to extract fossil fuels from the ground.

Now that’s a thought for our children and our grandchildren – or is it?

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.