Canadian Tar Sands Controversy

Proposed Keystone XL PipelineBy Dr. Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, with Jane Nicholson. Reprinted with permission of

At the end of the summer, protestors lobbied in front of the White House to fight a 1,700-mile-long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Keystone XL, as the pipeline is called, would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands, one of the largest but dirtiest sources of oil on earth.

Tar sands, also called oil sands, actually contain no tar. They are instead deposits in the earth made of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy, black, viscous crude oil, much like cold molasses. The bitumen cannot easily be separated from tar sands’ other components. Instead, it must be extracted from the tar sands, an expensive and complex process. Additionally, it requires two tons (1.8 metric tons) of tar sands to create one barrel of oil.

To extract the bitumen, tar sands are normally strip-mined or mined with open-pit methods. Alternatively, steam is injected into deep deposits to heat the sands, thus reducing the bitumen’s viscosity. This allows the bitumen to be pumped out like conventional crude oil.

Bitumen, however, is not ready to be refined when it leaves the earth. Because it is so viscous, bitumen must be diluted with lighter petroleum before it is transported by pipelines to ultimately be upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

Large deposits of tar sands exist in many countries, including the United States, Russia, and Middle Eastern countries. Canada and Venezuela, however, have the largest deposits of tar sands in the world. Together, they are estimated to hold about 3.6 trillion barrels
of oil. Comparatively, the world’s known crude oil reserves equal about 1.75 trillion barrels.

With about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in Canada’s tar sands, also called the Athabasca oil sands, the country has moved ahead of Mexico and Saudi Arabia to become the largest supplier of oil and refined products to the United States. Currently, the United States imports about 780,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada, 60 percent of Canadian production.

Whether or not the United States should ramp up oil imports from Canada is the big question. Doing so would mean completion of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas.

Few people can argue that importing oil into the United States from Canada is better than importing it from the Middle East. According to a recent article in The Bellingham Herald, the Canadian government, the oil industry, and many in the U.S. Congress support increasing Canadian tar sands oil imports to the United States, including construction of the pipeline.

Nevertheless, while the United States undoubtedly needs plenty of oil, many, including the protestors in Washington, D.C., question whether it should come from Canada’s tar sands. There are two main arguments against the Keystone XL.

First, making liquid fuel from tar sands keeps the United States dependent on a very polluting source of energy. According to the Bellingham Herald article, the process required for steam injection and refining generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of oil as conventionally produced oil.

The second argument is against the pipeline itself. While the Keystone XL could transport another 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to the United States every day, it carries substantial risks. Tar-sands oil is more corrosive in nature than conventional oil. Opponents of the Keystone XL say the tar-sands oil could corrode the pipeline leaving it at an increased risk for spills.

The article reports that the pipeline would stretch across the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. The Ogallala is a shallow aquifer, one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world and crucial for the $20 billion agricultural operations of the region.

As controversy swirls around tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, Americans struggle to strike a balance between their energy needs and environmental pollution.

Neal Lineback is professor emeritus of geography at Appalachian State University. Co-author Mandy Lineback Gritzner is also a geographer. Technical editor Jane Nicholson is Appalachian State’s news director.


One thought on “Canadian Tar Sands Controversy

  1. Pingback: Geographia Journal « geocrusader80

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