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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Tar Sands Fuels: Threatening to Set Back Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region Climate Achievements

Elizabeth Shope

Posted January 23, 2014

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Today, NRDC – along with 15 other local, regional and national groups – released a new report entitled What’s in Your Tank? Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States Need to Reject Tar Sands and Support Clean Fuels. The report brings to light a major new threat to the region: without action by citizens and policy-makers, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic will have 11.5% of their petroleum-based transportation and heating fuels coming from tar sands by 2020. Further, if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, and just a small portion of the fuel derived from Keystone XL’s tar sands crude flows to the Northeast, the portion of tar sands-derived fuels in the region could skyrocket to 14-18%. Because tar sands-derived fuels cause 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally sourced-fuels over their full life-cycle from extraction through burning, this could be a major setback for a region that has embraced carbon emission reductions with programs like the landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state pact to combat climate change by reducing carbon pollution from power plants.

Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are currently almost “tar sands free.”  As of 2012, tar sands accounted for less than 1 percent of the region’s fuel supply, but even as soon as 2015, tar sands could grow to account for 5% of the region’s fuel supply. Unless we take action to stop it, this invasion of tar sands will happen in several ways:

  • Tar sands crude oil will be sent to the U.S. Gulf Coast through the existing pipeline network, along with Keystone XL if it is approved, be refined on the Gulf Coast, and then sent as fuel to the Northeast via the Colonial Pipeline and other means.
  • If the reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 and the Portland-Montreal Pipeline are approved, and if TransCanada’s Energy East Pipeline is approved, more tar sands could be sent to the East for refining in Eastern Canadian refineries and Northeast and Mid-Atlantic refineries that supply the region.

PipelineMap_r6.jpgAlready, PBF refineries in Delaware and New Jersey are processing limited quantities of tar sands crude, and other refineries in the region and in Canada could start taking more tar sands, especially in its partially processed synthetic crude oil form. The Gulf Coast pathway is the newest threat to the Northeast fuel supply. Even without the northern segment of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, tar sands processing in the Gulf is expected to increase over the next several years with projects like the Gulf Coast Pipeline which is expected to start operation this week. However, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would further increase the quantity of tar sands being sent to the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.  Even just a small percentage of the tar sands coming through Keystone XL will make a significant difference to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region’s fuel supply.

The Keystone XL pipeline system is designed to by-pass Midwestern refineries oriented toward U.S. consumers to send tar sands to the Gulf Coast where much of it can be refined and exported. In its environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department projected that over half of the tar sands in Keystone XL will be exported internationally after being refined in Gulf Coast refineries (specifically, p. 15 of the Keystone XL DSEIS Market Analysis indicates that almost half of PADD 3 [Gulf Coast] refined products go to the domestic market, implying that over half are exported).  The Gulf Coast’s international exports of refined product have been a relatively recent development, whereas Gulf Coast refineries have historically provided a significant portion of the East Coast’s refined products.

As NRDC has repeatedly stressed in testimony, blogs and more, most of the tar sands going to the Gulf on Keystone XL is likely to be exported after being refined.  But analysis by Hart Energy, presented in this report, indicates that even a small portion of tar sands reaching the Gulf through Keystone XL and flowing as refined products to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region could significantly undermine the region’s climate efforts.  According to the Hart Energy report, Keystone XL could supply the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region an additional 78,000 barrels per day of tar sands-derived fuels (less than 10% of the volume that would flow through Keystone XL). This amount would increase the portion of tar sands-derived fuel for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic from 11.5% to 14.2%.

Chart from report.jpgAccepting tar sands into the Northeast will make us complicit in the environmental devastation that is occurring in Alberta, where the tar sands is extracted. In Alberta, we’re seeing not only decimation of the land, but also air and water pollution, wildlife habitat destruction, and rare cancers in indigenous communities downstream from where the tar sands are extracted. As we have seen, the transport of tar sands is also risky, as tar sands spills can be very expensive and near impossible to clean up. The Enbridge pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010, for example, is still being cleaned up and has cost over $1 billion – not to mention the costs to people’s quality of life in the region.

Historically, citizens and states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region have been leaders in the fight against global warming. All the states in the region have developed state action plans or enacted legal requirements to cut dangerous carbon pollution, which is the major driver of climate change.  Among the steps they’ve taken:  clean car and zero-emission vehicle performance standards, the purchase of clean buses and other fleet vehicles, and funding clean fuel infrastructure, such as charging stations for plug-in vehicles.

There have also been massive protests against the proposed reversal of the Portland-Montreal pipeline that could send tar sands to Portland, ME, for shipping anywhere in the world. The influx of carbon intensive fuels like tar sands threatens to undermine the fight to curb climate changing emissions in the region. As we explain in the report, if tar sands becomes 18% of the region’s fuel supply, the switch to tar sands fuels would increase greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10 million metric tons annually in 2020, an amount that would offset most of the carbon pollution reductions that the region is seeking under its Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative over five years.

This does not need to be the path forward. Citizens and government need to take action now to stop this threat and work for clean transportation options. Specifically:

  • One very important step is to track tar sands fuel and the carbon intensity – if you don’t know where your fuel is coming or what the carbon intensity is, you don’t know its true carbon impact. 
  • Citizens should also ask state leaders to enact policies to stop a rise in the carbon intensity of their state’s transportation fuels, which would send a market signal to cease the expansion of tar sands and help ensure that clean energy measures are reducing net carbon pollution.
  • Citizens should also ask state leaders to do more to embrace clean transportation fuels such as electricity, hydrogen, sustainably produced biofuels, and low-carbon biogas, as well as reducing oil demand with options like more public transit, and making communities more bike and pedestrian friendly.

Clean fuels – not tar sands – should be the path forward for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. 

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Michael BerndtsonJan 23 2014 02:27 PM

Here in the Land of Lincoln (Chicago-Berwyn, not the vacious void of vapidity that's downstate) we can probably say that whatever percentage of gasoline that's not ethanol from Illinois corn is petroleum hydrocarbons from Alberta tar sands. Thanks, Obama, Kirk and the other guy from Washington Park in Springfield. Nice guy, apparently. OK senator. His name escapes me. Durbin. That's it.

I actually don't' know what percentage tar sands is and its going to be. However, Exxon Joliet, Citgo Lemont and BP Whiting are modified for heavy crude processing, aka tar sands. So it's probably more than a bit.

We should congratulate Illinois politicians and news sources for keeping quiet on making Illinois the tar sands pipeline manifold of America via the Keystone XL North Workaround. Take that Cushing, OK.

Elizabeth ShopeJan 24 2014 02:14 PM

Responding to our report, the tar sands industry’s website, Oil Sands Fact Check, once again gets its facts wrong, accusing NRDC of flip-flopping on our stance that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is primarily for export overseas and that Keystone XL would enable a huge increase in carbon-pollution from tar sands mining. Anyone looking at the data and the report will see that in fact, there is no flip-flop.

The new NRDC report says that even without Keystone XL, tar sands-derived fuel will be coming to the U.S. Looking forward, absent action to stop it, tar sands will make its way in increasing quantities from Canadian refineries to the Northeast; there will be an increase of tar sands fuel use in the Northeast that will come from U.S. East Coast refineries such as the PBF refineries in Delaware and New Jersey that are currently getting some tar sands via rail and barge; and it will come from the Gulf Coast, which now can obtain some supplies of tar sands crude even without Keystone XL. This initial surge of tar sands fuel into the region has nothing to do with Keystone XL, as the report makes clear. It remains true that if Keystone XL is built, it will skip over the Midwest to the Gulf, where a majority of it will be sold overseas, and a small portion would be sent to the Northeast -- which makes a big difference in the percentage of Northeast fuel coming from tar sands.

Moreover, NRDC has never claimed that rejecting Keystone XL would shut down all tar sands mining in Alberta. The heavily polluting production of tar sands has been underway there for years without Keystone XL, and sadly will likely continue. What NRDC has said, and remains true, is that Keystone XL would enable a dramatic expansion of the strip-mining of the Boreal forest necessary to produce tar sands. And most tar sands production envisioned by industry is in expansion projects, as producers hope to triple production by 2030 . That’s why the government and industry are so eager for Keystone XL, as they've said. Enabling such a plan would significantly exacerbate the problem of climate pollution at a time when we need to be reducing our emissions.

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