Tar sands are sandy soils laden with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Getting oil out of them is a dirty, dangerous, and deadly process. Daniel knew none of this when a neighbor phoned in the fall of 2008 to say that he'd seen trespassers on the property. "I went back [from work] and I found survey stakes that cut my property in half," he recalls. Several months later, an eminent domain letter arrived, telling him that a pipeline carrying oil from Canada's "oil sands" would cut through his pristine property. When he complained to TransCanada, the company in charge, its lawyer responded with a veiled threat: "Should I put the letter in the ‘cooperative' or the ‘uncooperative pile?'"
So began the Daniel family's struggles with TransCanada, whose powerful US backers include Koch Industries (best known for its stealth attacks on the federal government, and big spending on climate-change-denial campaigns). By the time TransCanada's surveyors entered the Daniels' lives, the corporation was already hard at work pushing a pipeline that would run from the Canadian border to Texas's Gulf Coast, along the way slicing through the Daniels' land and the properties of countless other Americans.
At no time did TransCanada's representatives volunteer information about tar sands, leaving Daniel to do his own research. When he asked how tar sands oil would affect the pipeline, TransCanada responded only that the effects would be determined after the pipeline was put in place. "They made us feel like lab rats on our own property," he says.
Behind his painful schooling in corporate arrogance lies a startling fact: Canada is the leading oil-supplier of the United States. Let me repeat that: the US imports more oil from Canada than (yes) Mexico, which ranks second, and (believe it or not) Saudi Arabia, which ranks only third. Tar sands are largely responsible for Canada's new petro-status. Nearly a million barrels of tar sands oil arrive in the US every day. By 2025, Canada is expected to be producing 3.5 million barrels of tar sands oil daily. Most of that, says Ryan Salmon of the National Wildlife Federation, will be imported to the US And believe me, when it comes to energy ugly, tar sands could take the cake.
Not Tar, Not Oil
In fact, "tar sands" is a colloquialism for 54,000 square miles of bitumen that veins sand and clay beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, one of Canada's western provinces. Black as it is, bitumen isn't actually tar, though it looks and smells like tar, and has its consistency on a very cold day—hence, that term "tar sands." (The corporations that produce the stuff prefer "oil sands.")
Unlike oil, bitumen does not flow. Gouged and steamed out from under the forest, it is wrenched from the soil, barreled, and then refined into synthetic crude oil—at shattering environmental costs. The tar sands industry has ravaged Alberta's forests, poisoned its air and water, and wrecked the livelihoods of its indigenous peoples. Moreover, producing synthetic crude from a barrel of bitumen generates at least twice as much greenhouse gas as producing a barrel of normal crude oil. At 1.5 million barrels of tar sands oil a day, that's a lot of global warming.
But for corporations intent on profits in a world rocked by Middle East and North African uprisings that might threaten global oil supplies, and by declining reserves of normal crude, environmental catastrophe is trivial collateral damage. The tar sands' great selling point in the US is that it comes from a friendly neighbor. Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, typically touts tar sands as improving "US energy security and reduc[ing] dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East and Venezuela," At a White House meeting in early February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured President Obama that "Canada is the largest, the most secure, the most stable, and the friendliest supplier of that most vital of all America's purchases: energy."
A complex alchemy turns bitumen into synthetic crude. Canadian journalist and tar sands expert Andrew Nikiforuk calls this final product "the world's dirtiest hydrocarbon oil." Canada used to transform bitumen from its rawest into its ultimate form, sending synthetic crude through pipelines to the US. Now, however, with Canada's refineries maxing out, US refineries are increasingly taking up the task of turning bitumen into the mock crude that makes even my Prius environmentally unfriendly. That means what's coming to Americans in ever increasing quantities is a very raw form of diluted bitumen called DilBit, whose transport will make lab rats of us all.
Under jaunty names like "Lakehead," "Alberta Clipper," and "Keystone," a vast pipeline network is already pumping this diluted bitumen to the Midwest and into the American heartland. The 1,900-mile-long Lakehead pipeline, owned by Canada's Enbridge Inc., skirts one of the world's largest stretches of fresh water, the Great Lakes.
Last June, Enbridge's main competitor, TransCanada, opened a $5 billion, 2,147-mile pipeline it dubbed Keystone I, which plunges from Canada straight through the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Kansas to the Gulf Coast. Now, TransCanada is pushing hard for an extension, the Keystone XL, the one that will run through David Daniel's land on its way to the Gulf coast.
In February, 2011, a landmark report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted that diluted bitumen is "the primary product" carried by the Keystone I. The proposed Keystone XL, write the report's authors, will be dedicated only to DilBit whose "combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration." So imagine this recipe for pipelines from hell: take thick, raw, corrosive, acid-ridden bitumen and add volatile natural gas to propel it since the bitumen doesn't flow by itself; next, crank up the temperatures and pressures far higher than those needed to move ordinary crude oil (again, to help the stuff on its way). It doesnÊ¼t take a rocket scientist to understand some of the possible dangers of moving tar sands oil in this state through our communities.
The Tar Sands Come to Kellogg's
Last July, as BP's catastrophe in the Gulf was making news around the clock, the US experienced its first big DilBit moment. Part of Enbridge's Lakehead line broke, oozing black gunk into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, Michigan, iconic home to cereal-maker Kellogg's. Twelve hours passed before workers responded to the surge of sludge, which by then had passed from the tributary into the river itself. The dark slop could be seen from bank to bank in the Kalamazoo, making its way to Lake Michigan.
High levels of benzene filled the air and local residents had to be evacuated from their homes. When the sludge passed through Battle Creek, the Kellogg's factory even stopped making cornflakes. The spill was arrested before it could reach Lake Michigan, but not before a million gallons of DilBit had fouled a 30-mile-long stretch of the Kalamazoo, one of the biggest spills in Midwest history.
This was, however, no "ordinary" oil spill, as DilBit spills are much harder to clean up. Once DilBit hits water, the bitumen in it doesn't float; it quickly sinks into river sediment. Exposed to sunlight, it forms a dense, sticky substance hard to remove from rock and soil.
Special dredging and other equipment is needed for any effective cleanup. The booms you saw skimming the Gulf last summer are inadequate, and the US doesn't yet have DilBit cleanup technology. So while cleanup crews worked on the Kalamazoo and its banks after the spill was discovered, they left a whole lot of DilBit behind. Adequate cleanup isn't expected until at least late 2011, according to the NRDC's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz.
At the time of the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge's CEO, Patrick Daniels, claimed that there had never been a leak "of this consequence" in the company's history. According to Enbridge's own reports, however, between 2000 and 2009 the company was responsible for 610 pipeline spills in Canada, totaling 5.5 million gallons. (Not all were DilBit, which makes the picture worse, not better, since ordinary crude is less corrosive and volatile than DilBit.) In Michigan, 12 spills from Enbridge's pipelines preceded the larger one in the Kalamazoo. Two months after that spill, another part of Enbridge's Lakehead pipeline leaked 256,000 gallons of DilBit into Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago.
Keystone's underground pipeline to the Gulf Coast, which opened only nine months ago, has already leaked seven times. They have been small leaks, but significant nonetheless as they point to larger, more distressing problems. "It seems odd to us that a brand-new pipeline would have these little spills throughout," says Casey-Lefkowitz. "It raises questions about the quality of construction."
"TransCanada is building its pipelines according to strength regulations designed for conventional pipelines decades ago," adds Anthony Swift, co-author of the NRDC report. Swift says the company "has not yet provided a meaningful strategy for dealing with some of the characteristics of diluted bitumen."
The proposed Keystone XL, also underground, would carry up to 900,000 barrels of DilBit (37,800,000 gallons) south every day, passing through some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the US, including rivers, wildlife preserves, and wide expanses of prairie. In addition, it would run through the Ogallala aquifer, a 174,000-square-mile expanse of water that lies under eight states from the Dakotas to Texas and provides 30% of the nation's irrigation for agriculture, as well as drinking water for 82% of the people within its vast boundaries.
The pipeline would pass through areas where landslides and earthquakes are known threats. Part of Keystone I already traverses an area of seismic activity in Nebraska, where a recent tremor—3.5 on the Richter scale—shook the ground throughout the southeast part of the state. It also runs through the easternmost part of the Ogallala. Before Keystone I was built, a National Wildlife Federation report warned, "Some portions of the aquifer are so close to the surface that any pipeline leak would almost immediately contaminate a large portion of the water."
TransCanada cannot begin constructing Keystone XL without both a presidential permission and a State Department environmental impact statement (EIS), made necessary because the project crosses international borders. The State Department issued that EIS in April, 2010 in the wake of public hearings in towns along the pipeline route. Environmental organizations, landowners, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were sharply critical of the EIS. Among other things, says the NRDC's Anthony Swift, the statement failed to demonstrate "the need for the pipeline, its safety, and its greenhouse gas impacts." Especially troubling, according to Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, was the failure to consider an alternate pipeline route that would not slash through the Ogallala aquifer.
Last month, under pressure from mounting opposition to the pipeline by a coalition of grassroots groups, the State Department held further meetings in Washington to hear their grievances. (The EPA also met with coalition leaders.) Ben Gotschall, a fifth generation Nebraska organic rancher, called the State Department's environmental statement "insulting." It suggested, he said, neither that stronger than normal pipeline materials should be used, nor that there might be alternative routes to the one currently proposed. TransCanada's only concern, he insisted, was cost, while at stake was the "life and livelihood of millions of people."
"My family has been producing grass-fed beef for five generations," said Gotschall. "We do this organically, without chemicals and with minimum fossil fuel inputs... Nebraska farmers and ranchers were producing food long before we had the benefit of fossil fuels and we can and will find a way to produce food long after fossil fuels are gone. But we will never be able to produce food without clean water. To me, this pipeline is an issue of national security that threatens our domestic food and water supply."
If the pipeline goes through, a handful of giant corporations will profit, among them Koch Industries which handles about 25% of tar sands imports to the US, and is among the biggest of US tar sands refiners. Meanwhile, the grassroots opposition uniting farmers and ranchers, environmentalists and scientists is growing in the heartland states.
Last month, the coalition demanded that the State Department issue a supplemental environmental impact statement. On March 16th, Ben Gotschall e-mailed: "If you haven't heard already, the State Department has called for a supplemental draft EIS... This is a victory for all of us who have been fighting this from the beginning." On March 24th, 25 mayors sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We are concerned," they wrote, "that expansion of high carbon projects such as the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will undermine the good work being done in local communities across the country to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil."
Yet in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, domestic fears over nuclear energy are spiking, while months of turmoil in the Muslim world have highlighted a growing US dependence on Middle Eastern oil. As a result, it will surely become harder to derail the efforts of TransCanada and Koch Industries to ram a pipeline filled with toxic tar sands oil right through David Daniel's property.
Will a pipeline leak one day kill off his old growth hardwood trees, foul his three natural springs, and poison the deer now roaming his land? If TransCanada's checkered history is any guide, it's a real possibility. Energy kills. In Japan. In the Gulf. In Appalachian mines. And in the Corn Flake capital of the world. If Winnsboro, East Texas, is added to the list, it won't be a surprise, not to David Daniel anyway. He knows what we all know now: in the hands of corporations whose only concern is profit, energy is ugly.
Ellen Cantarow is a journalist whose work on Israel/Palestine has been widely published for 30 years, including at TomDispatch. Her long-time concern about climate change, related to both political and environmental disaster in the Middle East, has recently led her to explore big oil territory.
[Note on sources: Thanks to both Michael Klare, who suggested the tar sands topic, and Andrew Nikiforuk, who shared information by e-mail. Nikiforuk's book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent should be required reading on this topic. Thanks also to Anthony Swift and Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of The National Resources Defense Council for supplying additional information about the differences between DilBit oil spills and ones. NRDC's crucial report, "Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks," can be read in .pdf format by clicking here.]