Canadian Tar Sands

The Canadian Tar Sands have become a hot topic on the campaign trail this year especially since President Obama rejected the proposed Keystone Oil Pipeline extension.  Yes, I said extension because there already exists one Keystone Oil Pipeline running from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, but because of increased production, there now needs to be a second pipeline.  But this extension has environmentalists raising their voices, and even some throughout the country not so sure about it.  The issue, though, is more than just about the environment.

The United States still consumes approximately 25% of the world’s oil, and there is no way (even if we were to open up every bit of land for oil) that we could produce enough oil to satisfy how much we consume.  So we have to look to our trading partners to fill in the gap of what we cannot produce ourselves.  (NOTE: The US does export some of it’s own oil to other nations, too.  Sounds a bit odd for a nation that can’t even supply it’s own energy needs.)  In 2000, Saudia Arabia was the top exporter of oil to the US with 1.5-million barrels of oil a day (roughly 17%) with Canada coming in second with 1.35-million barrels of day (15%).  With the Middle East usually in turmoil and our relationships with those countries usually in a fragile state, the US has looked closer to home for more oil.  In 2010, it would be Canada that is supplying the US with it’s oil, exporting 2-million barrels a day (22%) with Mexico and Saudi Arabia coming in at second with 1.1-million barrels (12%).  What brought up the production in Canada?  The tar sands and technology making it easier to bring it out of the ground.  (The chart in this paragraph shows how much of the Canadian oil is convention oil and how much of it is tar sands.)  So Canada is producing more oil and shipping it through the US.  Where is the problem in all this?

It basically comes down to the state of Nebraska.  This is something the Republican candidates for President won’t really acknowledge, and the media hasn’t given this part much attention after the President vetoed the pipeline.  Underneath the Plain States, in the heart of the US, is the Ogallala aquifer.  It runs from Texas all the way up to the southern part of South Dakota and supplies the water for eight different states (Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota).  This is the water that farmers tap into the water the fields and that towns use to drink with… especially when there isn’t a river nearby.  Though in recent years, we have begun to deplete this vast underground aquifer (taking out more than gets put back in), it is still vital to the communities and the farmers that rely on it… and thus to the rest of us.  As the Keystone Pipeline extension cuts diagonally across the state of Nebraska, it cuts across one of the wider sections of this aquifer.  And the Governor of Nebraska, who just happens to be a Republican, wants additional time to consider alternate routes for this new pipeline so that it doesn’t interact with the underground aquifer as much as the current plan would have it.

Now if you look at the map closely enough, you will see that the current Keystone Oil Pipeline already goes through the very eastern edge of the Ogallala Aquifer.  This is a smaller crossing than the new proposed extension would make as it would cut diagonally across one of the bigger sections.  And, just to the south of the aquifer, the new pipeline will intersect the existing pipeline and head south into Oklahoma where the two will split once again.  My question for this is why can’t the extension and the existing pipeline meet on the north side of the aquifer and thus use the current aquifer crossing so it is still in that one smaller area?  Or another possibility… why can’t the pipeline move down the western edge of the aquifer from Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico and then into Texas so that it wouldn’t cross the aquifer at all?

So why is any of this important at all?  The bigger the area that the oil pipeline crosses over the aquifer (and both the pipe and aquifer are underground) just opens up a bigger risk of a break and oil leaking into the water below it.  It could range from a small leak of oil over time or a massive rupture that could send barrels of oil seeping into the ground (something along the lines that we saw in Gulf of Mexico in 2010).  Unlike the Gulf of Mexico where an oil spill can be cleaned up, the Ogallala aquifer can’t be cleaned up since it’s underground.  Once oil were to seep into it, it could contaminate the entire thing and thus make the water unusable… thus drying up the Plain States, which would have a ripple effect across our nation and the world over.

Part of the issue is over the creation of jobs.  As the US is coming out a major economic recession, there is a great need for jobs, and construction of the new pipeline would create hundreds (maybe thousands) of new temporary jobs.  Yes, they would only be temporary since the job would be for constructing the pipeline… though it is possible that some could remain on board with the company to maintain the pipeline.  But in this day and age, any job is a good job.  Having the populace back at work means more money to spend and the economy does better.  So where must we draw the line between the sides… the need for jobs, the need for more oil, and the environmental concerns?  In my opinion, at least for the time being, it was right where it was drawn.  The Republicans in Congress pushed through a deadline to either accept or reject the pipeline proposal, so they could say that he’s against creating jobs.  The President said that more time was still needed to determine if the plans were good and met qualifications (external article)… maybe he was listening to Nebraska who was claiming that it wanted more time during this entire debate.  I can’t be certain of that.  My guess, though, is that the pipeline will be constructed at some point.  We don’t want that oil from Canada flowing west and heading to China, afterall.  It’s just a matter of whether it will follow the course that has been outlined or a different one.

And there’s one more kink to this entire equation.  According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a nonpartisan outfit that advises Congress, the process being currently led by the State Department for construction of the pipeline is an invention of the Executive Branch dating back to 1968.  Under Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution, it is Congress that has the ability “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes…”  So why has this authority been placed in the Executive Branch since 1968?  Because the Congress hasn’t enforced it and the courts haven’t ruled.  It is possible that Congress could circumvent the Executive Branch altogether in this decision should it decide to exercise its authority granted to it by the US Constitution.  (Yahoo article)

See… this issue is a lot more complicated than the talking points the media and politicians have made it out to be.  Again, I do think the pipeline will be built in the end.  I’m also a firm believer in green energy, but I also know that we still need oil in this day and age.  Our dependency on oil is not the bigger problem that it’s made out to be.  It’s our overall dependency on oil in general that we should be concerned about.  We have to start bringing that down.   But that’s another topic for another time.  Is it a win-win or lose-lose situation? And on which side of the pipeline do you fall on?  This is definitely going to continue to be an election year topic.  Hopefully we all know a bit more so that we can be actively involved in it rather than depending on the “talking heads” and their typical talking points.


3 Responses to Canadian Tar Sands

  1. chainsaw says:

    I’m often to running a blog and i actually recognize your content. The article has really peaks my interest in website. I am going to bookmark your site and maintain checking for new information.

  2. GL says:

    The correct term is oil sands. Tar is a product that is made from oil

    • James S. says:

      You can actually find it listed throughout various media outlets and even energy websites listed both ways, either as oil sands or tar sands, and referencing the same thing. So both terms would actually work. I thank you for bringing it up and making me double check.

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