Two Tar Sands Developments We're Watching

In the face of stubborn US opposition against its tar sands development aspirations, TransCanada Corp. is moving forward with its plan to develop a coast-to-coast pipeline across Canada that would dwarf the capacity of the infamous Keystone XL.

The so-called "Energy East" project would cut through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, capable of delivering up to 1.1 million barrels of oil and tar sands bitumen to refineries in eastern Canada.

That compares with the approximately 830,000 barrels per day that would be delivered by the Keystone project.

The $12 billion development plan calls for converting 1,864 miles of an existing, 55-year-old pipeline being used for natural gas to be converted to carry the oil. The rest of the 2,760-mile-long pipeline would involve approximately 870 miles of new construction from the Quebec-Ontario border to Saint John, New Brunswick.

"We are very pleased with the outcome of the open season for the Energy East Pipeline held earlier this year and are excited to move forward with a major project that will bring many benefits across Canada," says Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and chief executive officer. "This is an historic opportunity to connect the oil resources of western Canada to the consumers of eastern Canada, creating jobs, tax revenue and energy security for all Canadians for decades to come."

Several organizations are lining up to oppose the project, including the Assembly of First Nations’ Chiefs in New Brunswick, which plans to "avail themselves of any means necessary, legal or otherwise" to stop it.

Meanwhile, the Council of Canadians is rallying a national campaign to stop Energy East, playing up the dangers of using existing and aging pipelines to transport the highly toxic tar sands bitumen.

"The export pipeline would pose serious threats to local water supplies, communities and coastal waters," says the Council. "It would promote expansion of the tar sands that have made massive profits for corporations, leave contaminated water, land and air for nearby communities and stand in the way of the alternative energy future we need."

The graphic below shows the proposed pipeline route.

Energy East

It’s unclear how much of the Energy East oil and tar sands would wind up being exported into the US from points in Quebec or New Brunswick.

In the past, however, TransCanada has stated that the pipeline would deliver oil to "existing North America markets."

That leads many to believe that the company plans to transport the tar sands output from this cross-Canada pipeline down into Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine through existing pipelines that are 62 years old.

Right now, parts of that network, owned by an ExxonMobile subsidiary, is used to deliver crude oil into Canada. The owners have been lobbying throughout New England to build support for a plan to reverse the direction of the flow, so tar sands oil could be sent into the US via this route.

In March 2013, 29 Vermont towns moved proactively to oppose this idea, calling for the elimination of any oil in New England that comes from Alberta tar sands. The city of Portland, Maine, is also considering a resolution against it.

"Pipelines that carry tar sands oil are more risky, which makes the prospect of using an ancient pipeline to bring tar sands oil through Maine a scary prospect," said Councilor Dave Marshall, Chair of the Transportation, Sustainability, and Energy Committee, in March. "It is even more concerning when the pipeline runs through the watershed of Sebago Lake, perhaps the best drinking water supply in the world. Additionally, the pipeline ends in South Portland, where the Fore River delta meets Casco Bay, a rich marine habitat and the key to our tourist industry. Portland has everything to lose, and nothing to gain from transportation of tar sands oil through our region and the State of Maine."

Conservation Groups Challenge US Tar Sands Project

Elsewhere, conservation groups are challenging state and federal decisions that opened the door to oil shale and tar sands development in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, after losing the first court battle.

The region in question is the Green River Formation, which the US Geological Survey estimates could contain 353 billion to 1.15 trillion barrels of oil. That’s 2-7 times more than the 170 billion barrels that could be delivered by the Keystone XL pipeline over its lifetime.

In Colorado, a coalition of seven conservation groups sued the Bureau of Land Management in late July for allocating more than 800,000 acres of federal public land to the project without formally considering the impact on endangered species.

The mining would industrialize backcountry and destroy habitat, pollute and deplete water, and emit greenhouse gases, say the groups in their lawsuit. This poses a serious threat to the Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, razorback sucker, Mexican spotted owl and many other threatened and endangered species, say the conservation groups.

“This citizen intervention is necessary because the Department of Interior is sending mixed messages to the public. On one day, the administration issues a statement that the Colorado River’s critical water supply will be protected for people and habitat, and then on another day they announce the most carbon intensive mining practice on the planet can move forward,” says John Weisheit, conservation director with Living Rivers, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. “The two programs are not mutually beneficial. Interior has to protect the Colorado River, there is no other choice.”

The other groups involved include Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.

Many of them are also challenging a new oil refinery in Green River, Utah, that could process the fuels mined from the formation. They have filed a "request for agency action" with the Utah Department of Air Quality (UDAQ).

Aside from pollution, there are concerns about the impact on the region’s water supply. Every barrel of oil mined, requires several barrels of water. This would require siphoning “water from Utah’s lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers at a time when the West’s water supplies are tightening and competition for Utah’s remaining allocations are causing cities such as St. George to plan a 130-mile water pipeline from Lake Powell to meet growing demands,” says Western Resource Advocates (WRA), a non-profit, environmental law and policy organization. 

“The public needs to understand that the Colorado River Basin’s carbon bomb dwarfs Alberta’s,” says Taylor McKinnon, director of energy with Grand Canyon Trust. “In addition to polluting Utah’s already-dirty air, this refinery is another step toward massive strip mining, greenhouse gas emissions and Colorado River drying.”

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Comments on “Two Tar Sands Developments We're Watching”

  1. Jill

    How can it be a “carbon bomb,” when the oil was produced by a natural decaying process involving the sun, pressure and plants that died millions of years ago? You can’t get carbon unless the carbon already existed in the first place.

  2. Hops

    The Earth’s crust has vast amounts of carbon in the form of carbonates. Volcanos release some over many years. Over the eons, plants captured that carbon and it became buried with their remains. Of course the planet will be just fine if we release it all suddenly, but sea level will rise above our current coast line and the U.S. will become like the tropics.

  3. Bill

    Yea,enjoy the benefits of dirty air, spills, traffic, noise, dust, loss of wildlife habitat just for starters.

    Too bad that energy production has to happen everywhere, trumping all other values.


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