Tar Sands Background



Summary By Ann & Loring Dales, Edited by Rand Wrobel

Main source of information: Williams, Ted: “Tarred and Feathered.” Audubon magazine, Volume 113, No. 4, July-August 2011, pp 24-33.

The Company TransCanada's proposal is for a 3-foot diameter, subsurface pipeline running from Alberta through Oklahoma and Texas to the U.S. gulf coast.


Tar sands are just that, sands impregnated with tarry oil that, in Canada, underlay perhaps 20% of of the Province of Alberta, with most of the overlying terrain covered with boreal forest.

  • Bulldozing, Pits and Toxic Waste

Mining tar sands starts with bulldozing off about 100 feet of soil overlying the tarry deposits, followed by strip-mining out the oil-laced sand. This sand is then steamed with vast amounts of gas-heated water to extract the desired product, bitumen. Waste products of this process include hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic substances.

  • Habitat Destruction

Of course, the overlaying boreal forest - which among other things provides habitat for some 30 percent of our continent's landbird species as well as a number of waterbirds - is destroyed. The mining companies' subsequent “restoration” measures seem about as good as the perfunctory habitat restoration practiced by coal strip-mining companies in Appalachia –extremely poor. This converts many, many square miles of fish and wild habitat into pits and toxic waste, much of which leaks farther out into the environment,

  • Billions of Tons of Carbon Pollution

The mining and processing requires energy, thereby directly and indirectly consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels with the associated generation of greenhouse gases


  • Risk Contamination of Drinking Water for Two Million People

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline was to run 1660 miles through a total of 6 Great Plains states in the U.S., a little below the land surface. For many of these miles the pipeline will would have been buried inside possibly the largest underground aquifer on the planet, the Ogallala Aquifer, which charges rivers, lakes, and marshes and supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states. Initially, TransCanada was non-responsive to requests to revise the pipeline route to avoid this aquifer. Later, when it became clear that local and state governments in this area were increasingly resistant to the idea, the company changed its mind and now proposes the that the Keystone XL pipeline go around the aquifer.

  • Risk Contamination of Drinking Water for Two Million People

Because the bitumen is too viscous to be piped as is, it is mixed with a volatile liquid concentrate from natural gas, converting it into thin liquid. This liquid contains all the toxic and carcinogenic fractions found in regular crude oil. And the tar sands oil makes pipeline leaks more likely. It has high concentrations of chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive materials and acids, and it needs to be pumped at high pressure. All of this is hard on pipes, increasing the likelihood of ruptures.

  • Past Large Spills
    • Kalamazoo  River: TransCanada claims it can reliably prevent significant leaks in the pipeline, but empiric experience strongly suggests otherwise. In July 2010 a pipeline carrying this kind of slurry for TransCanada ruptured in Michigan, sending millions of gallons of it into the Kalamazoo River system. (U.S. government investigation of this episode reported many uncorrected erosion problems in the pipeline.)
    • Yellowstone River : In July 2011, an Exxon Mobile oil pipeline running along the Yellowstone River in Montana ruptured, spreading crude oil into the river for miles, also with fumes forcing evacuations. And of course the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline - which is only half the length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and contains oil which is less abrasive and corrosive than that of the Keystone XL, has experienced multiple significant leaks and ruptures over the years.

  • Underground Hidden Leaks

Unlike the Alaska pipeline, the Keystone XL would be underground, making it harder to detect non-massive leaks. Even the proposed project's own environmental impact statement apparently says that some slow leaks will not be detected for long periods.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sharply criticized the U.S. State Department's draft environmental impact statement for the project. The New York Times has called the project's environmental risks “enormous.” Leaking from the pipeline could pollute the Ogallala Aquifir for great distances, rendering water unfit for use by wildlife and humans.


TransCanada has been threatening landowners on the proposed route with eminent domain actions to frighten them into selling it right-of-way easements. An excerpt from to a ranch owner on this subject: TransCanada's letter

 “While we hope to acquire this property through negotiation, if we are unable to do so, we will be forced to invoke the power of eminent domain and will initiate condemnation proceedings.”


Opening of the proposed pipeline would:

  • Destroy Forests: substantially increase extraction of Canada's tar sands, thereby expanding the destructive impact on the boreal forest in Alberta.
  • Explode The Carbon Bomb: Also, of course, the extraction, processing and ultimate use (burning as fuel) - wherever the latter happens - will result huge additional discharges of carbon into the atmosphere with the attendant major impact on climate instability. Exploiting this, the second largest “carbon bomb” in the world after the Saudi oil fields, is what the top NASA climatologist, James Hansen, called, “Game Over for the climate”.
  • Not Reduce Gasoline Prices: The petroleum products rendered from the oil slurry after it reaches the end of the pipeline in Texas apparently are planned mostly (possibly entirely) to be sold on the world market, thus not substantively addressing this country's own needs for oil and its products.
  • No Long-Term Jobs: Construction of the U.S. segment of this pipeline would help generate some American jobs, but this temporary effect would end when the construction is completed. There will not likely be a substantial increase in employment at the U.S. gulf coast refineries that process the product.
  • Corporate Profits From Pollution: The big short and long-term “winners” look to be the corporate owners of the tar sands extraction operators in Canada and the corporate owners of the U.S. gulf coast refineries (as well as their investors). The “1%” and others near the economy's upper end will do fine, short and long-term.  But for the working and middle classes, the long-run jobs increase prospect looks slim.
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