Sheila McNulty Environmentalists should refine arguments against oil sands

Oil sands fieldControversy about importing fuel from Canada’s vast oil sands has been swirling for some time. It is an issue environmentalists seized on with great hope when President Barack Obama came into office, given his pledges to work to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and the fact that oil from tar sands, as environmentalists refer to it, has a higher carbon intensity than that from traditional crude.

But the weakness in the US economy, high unemployment and rising petrol prices have combined to give the oil industry the edge. Indeed, even back in 2009, the Obama administration approved a pipeline to carry oil-sands fuel from Canada into the US, saying its action was designed to send “a positive economic signal in a difficult economic period”. The Keystone pipeline also was approved.

Green campaigners are now fighting the third pipeline into the US, this one known as the Keystone XL. This one is to cross a number of states and bring the fuel down to Texas.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, is among those who have a problem with yet another pipeline being approved. She says that the Keystone pipeline has had 11 spills in its first year, noting the highly corrosive nature of bitumen. This is a concern because Keystone XL is to cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a key freshwater source for eight states.

She insists the state department’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been insufficient and did not do a good job of considering alternate routes, providing pipeline safety analysis and analysing the impact of refining this heavier crude oil at the end point – the already highly polluted Texas communities:

They’re doing minimalistic work to get it through more quickly.

The US government rejects such assertions and is going through a range of regulatory procedures required for approval, including a public comment period that ends on June 6. The pipeline project would not only bolster US energy security but it would provide jobs in the construction and maintenance of the pipeline. The project consists of approximately 1,711 miles of new, 36-inch-diameter pipeline, with approximately 327 miles of pipeline in Canada and approximately 1,384 miles in the US.

At a time of high and rising petrol prices against the backdrop of a weak economy, the industry believes the project will be approved. Jim Mulva, chief executive of ConocoPhillips, says:

It’s very important to energy security. Any delay in infrastructure development has an impact on the flexiblity of supply.

Ms Casey-Lefkowitz insists, however, that the second Keystone pipeline is unnecessary because there already are the first Keystone and the Alberta Clipper pipelines bringing oil sands fuel into the US.

We’re already taking as much oil as Canada can give us. It’s not necessary for energy security. Bringing this oil across America’s heartland, farms and the Ogallala Aquifer is a real danger for our communities.

While Kenneth Medlock III, energy expert at Rice University, understands the environmentalists’ hope of reducing carbon emissions, he insists that if the US does not import the oil sands, someone else will, noting there is a project underway to export it to the Pacific Basin. Canada would then provide more fuel to China, which would require less fuel from the Middle East. That Middle East fuel would go to Europe and the US would get more of its fuel from Africa:

The protests are not going to stop oil sands development. You have to think of the world as one big bathtub. It doesn’t matter which end of the tub you fill from, as long as you are adding supply. The oil is going to flow.

He is right. The oil is going to be produced, and somebody is going to buy it. If the environmentalists truly want to make a difference, perhaps their focus should switch to pressuring the oil industry to work harder to reduce the carbon footprint of oil sands’ development. Surely nobody can object to that?