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Danielle Droitsch Guest Blog: Council on Foreign Relations Blog Muddles Rather than Separates Fact from Fiction for Tar Sands Pipeline

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Posted September 2, 2011

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Danielle Droitsch photo.jpgThis is a guest post by Danielle Droitsch, Senior Advisor to NRDC's International Program.

Michael Levi with the Council of Foreign Relations recently attempted to separate fact from fiction on the issue of the Alberta tar sands but missed several fundamental points.  The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will increase America’s reliance on dirty oil and encourage expanded tar sands production in the Boreal Forest of Canada.  Millions of Americans are not convinced that the limited benefits of this pipeline are worth all of the risks whether it is an increased potential for oil spills in the Heartland or increased gas prices in the Midwest. Ultimately, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in the national interest so much as it is a profit-making project for oil companies.

First, Levi challenged Dr. James Hansen’s arguments that exploitation would result in “game over” in efforts to stabilize the climate and avoid impacts.  While Levi was correct in stating it might take some time to extract all of the tar sands he missed the point about why NRDC, Dr. Hansen, and others are so worried.  The concern is the trend toward using dirtier and dirtier oil.   Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands - just the emissions to extract and upgrade tar sands to synthetic crude oil - are 3-4 times higher than the production of conventional crude oil.  This doesn't even consider the massive impacts by tar sands to land and water in the Boreal Forest of Canada.  The United States, the largest consumer of Canada’s tar sands, will be effectively doubling its reliance on this high impact oil with Keystone XL – something that is dangerous in a world where the trend ought to be to decrease our reliance on oil altogether.   Incidentally, Levi is right to point out oil demand is a more relevant factor.  In fact, U.S. demand for oil is dropping which makes it all the harder to defend the need for the pipeline.

Levi then questions why NRDC points out that Keystone XL tar sands oil will be exported.   The information from a recent Oil Change International report explains how Valero, one of the top beneficiaries of Keystone XL pipeline will be exporting the Canadian oil they receive.  This is something Valero acknowledges.  KXL proponents are selling the pipeline on the basis that it will bring the U.S. energy security.  On August 25, 2011 a spokesperson for TransCanada declared: “The U.S. has a decision to make, [d]o they want to import oil from Canada or get conflict oil from OPEC nations?” 

There are two very important points here:

1.  If Keystone XL oil is exported from the U.S., then where are the U.S. energy security benefits? This point matters because the U.S. is about to make a decision about whether the pipeline is in the national interest.  If this pipeline, with its many risks to the drinking water supplies in the Midwest, is really about giving oil companies access to an international market, then this needs to be clear up front. 

2. Keystone XL would do almost nothing to stop the U.S. from importing oil from OPEC nations.  The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has over 70% of the world's reserves and is not affected by a bit more Canadian oil in the market. The International Energy Agency has shown that even with maximum production of tar sands, OPEC's share of the oil market is going to rise. The only way for America to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil is to reduce its dependence on all oil.

Finally, Levi’s appraisal that tar sands development would not be affected by whether the Keystone XL is built or not is doubtful.  This is the same flawed reasoning that has led the State Department to conclude the Keystone XL won’t have a significant impact on the environment.  While this pipeline won’t determine all tar sands development, it will most certainly drive the next phase of tar sands expansion.  And there is clear evidence of this. Oil companies themselves have indicated how important Keystone XL is to their expansion and profit plans. 

I am glad Levi acknowledged in his own assessment that the energy security benefits of tar sands are limited.  But it is important to make a distinction between a pipeline that will bring oil to America and a pipeline that will bring oil to world markets.  In fact, this pipeline will give oil companies access to world markets and in the process will increase gas prices in the Midwest and bring with it a higher risks of incidence of spills.   This is the point that NRDC and others are trying to make: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not needed, not worth the risk to land, water and public health and is not in the national interest. We have cleaner transportation solutions that will bring us real energy security and long-term economic security.

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GuthrumSep 2 2011 11:26 PM

My concern is cheap fuel for cars: gasoline (most likely not), electric, hydrogen, or other.
Most people do not live near rapid transit, and it certainly is not cheap. Nor do most people plan to locate near rapid transit, which unfortunately is located in the inner city, not the most desirable or safest place to live now a days. Any suggestions must take into account the cost, which to most people is the bottom line.

Gian-AngeloSep 3 2011 10:57 PM

The United States is already a net exporter of refined petroleum. And our consumption has dipped a couple of percent over the past few years. World consumption of oil is up 27%, however. Why is the Keystone XL destined for Port Arthur? Because Port Arthur is a deep water port that allows supertankers convenient access the the Pacific Ocean. And who needs this oil the most? India, China and Pakistan come to mind.

ScottSep 4 2011 02:35 AM

As an Albertan, I believe that being opposed to Keystone XL is a legitimate position. However, the criticism of greenhouse gas emissions is probably the weakest argument against the pipeline's approval.

Firstly, whether or not KXL gets approved, a similar bitumen formation exists in Utah. It will actually be cheaper to extract bitumen from Utah compared to Alberta because it's warm all year. In Alberta, digging through frozen dirt in winter makes things a bit more difficult. This will add to the US GHG emissions when the Utah operations come online, given that it's most likely going to be cheaper to buy compared to Alberta's oil.

Second, California's heavy crude oil produces slightly more GHGs than Alberta's synthetic crude oil - as the industry calls it. Californian oil refineries would, in fact, have the capability to process Alberta's bitumen because of the fact that Californian oil is heavier than it. No one seems to be raising this much, as Californian oil production goes on and on.

Third, I have to dispute your statement that Alberta's synthetic crude produces 3-4 times more GHGs than conventional oil. Your fact sheet ( appears to take this figure for granted, as you didn't bother to provide a citation within it. However, a number of studies have produced percentages of 5-15% higher than conventional oil. Not 400-500%, as you have stated.

Gian-AngeloSep 5 2011 04:36 PM

Just to review Environmental Defense's report on the Alberta tar sands.

First, even at a scale below current levels of production, oil sands mining is licensed to use TWICE the amount of fresh water as the entire city of Calgary. Water is the Earth's most precious resource, and this is clearly an egregiously wasteful use of this product.

Second, at least 90% of the fresh water used in the production of bitumen ends up in giant 50 kilometer square ponds. These toxic ponds are among the largest man-made structures in the world and are visible from space. Propane cannons are used, often not very effectively, in an attempt to keep birds from landing in them. Is dumping toxic waste in giant open lakes really a true waste remediation strategy? I would say certainly not, but it sure is cheap! Does anyone in Alberta really think that the oil companies will be around in 20 years when this chemically laden water begins to seep into the surrounding rivers that supply drinking water?

Third, processing the oil sands uses a huge amount of natural gas. Enough, in fact, to heat over 3 million homes. Much of this natural gas is obtained by fracking. Fracking involves pumping large amounts of unspecified chemicals into the ground in an effort to break up rock and release natural gas. Is it responsible to mine natural gas in a polluting manner so that it can be used to produce oil in an even more polluting manner? The energy companies love it because they make money twice. What a deal! But, really, does this make any ecological sense to anyone?

Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil. I think that this estimate is quite accurate. When you take into consideration the mining of natural gas, the transportation of natural gas, the process of clear cutting, the process of strip mining, the process of boiling the sand, the process of transporting the bitumen, the process of refining the bitumen, and finally the process of moving the refined bitumen to CHINA.

Not to let conventional oil production off the hook, because it is clearly polluting, but producing oil this way is clearly much more expensive and much more environmentally degrading in terms of the destruction of nature and the amount of carbon released.

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