Tarred and Feathered: The Tale of a 1,661-mile Proposed Oil Pipeline

A Canadian-based company is bluffing and bullying its way through six states so it can pump the world’s dirtiest oil through a 1,661-mile-long pipeline that crosses some of our most fragile wildlife habitats and lies inside earth’s largest underground reservoir. Columnist Ted Williams tells the pipeline's story in Audubon's July-August issue. An excerpt from the piece follows: 

As ravenous as we are for oil these days, we’ll take it any way we can get it from any place we can get it. Having drained most of the easy reserves, we’re tapping the difficult ones—three and a half miles under the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, and “tar sands” several hundred feet below northern Alberta’s boreal forests.

It’s expensive in all sorts of ways. In Alberta, for example, the entire native ecosystem has to be bulldozed away, the tar sands below strip-mined, and the oil-laced product, “bitumen,” steamed out by vast amounts of gas-heated water in a process that spikes the planet’s carbon load even as it destroys its carbon-sequestering potential. Waste products include hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic goop, plants, wildlife, fish, rivers, and people (see “Crude Awakening,” March-April 2010).

Keystone XL, as TransCanada calls its proposed pipeline, will be 36 inches in diameter and two times longer than the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. In Nebraska’s Sandhills it will be buried inside the largest underground reservoir on the planet—the Ogallala Aquifer, which charges rivers, lakes, and marshes and supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states.

Bitumen is too viscous to be piped, so it is spiked with volatile liquid condensate from natural gas and thus converted to a thinner cocktail called DilBit (short for diluted bitumen) that contains all the toxic and carcinogenic fractions found in regular crude oil. And tar sands oil makes pipeline leaks more likely. DilBit has high concentrations of chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals, and acids, and it needs to be pumped under high pressure. So it is rough on pipes.

Read the rest of the story here. For more on the behemoth vehicles that transport oil machinery, read "Monster Trucks," by Rick Bass.

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