The Environmental Cost of Oil Sands from Canada

Washington Post 
July 1, 2012

Keystone XL Pipeline Expansion Driven by Oil-Rich Tar Sands in Alberta
Steven Mufson

The Washington Post is presenting a series on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a controversial election year issue pitting energy independence (at least within the North American continent) against the concerns expressed by the environmental community about the greenhouse gas implications of extracting this particularly “dirty” form of petroleum. This article describes the extraction process:

“Unlike oil that spurts up from reservoirs in most of the world, including Saudi Arabia, half of Canada’s oil sands are dredged up in a process more akin to strip mining. Trees are cut, layers of wetland fen and peat are drained and peeled back, and then the companies dig into a rich layer of oil sands that go down nearly 400 feet. In areas to the south where the gunky oil lies even deeper, companies are drilling wells, generating and injecting steam into the ground to melt the bitumen, and then sucking it up to the surface.”

Adding to the concerns about the environmental impact is that the process is extremely energy intensive. According to the article, companies expend energy equal to one barrel of oil to extract four to eight barrels from the oil sands. A Congressional Research Service report released May 15 estimated that Canada’s oil sands produced 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of U.S. imported crude oil.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that oil production from Alberta’s oil sands, now 1.7 million barrels a day, could nearly double by 2020, enough to supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption. With that, the oil sands would be producing more than Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq or Kuwait. The Keystone XL pipeline would provide the 1700 mile link between Alberta and the oil refineries on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico.