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Keystone XL oil sands myths and half-truths

Oil sands production facility at Cenovus Energy, Alberta. The Obama administration faces a February 2011 deadline to decide whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline bringing more oil sands to the U.S.

Jeremy Hobson: What do you really know about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline? The one that would bring a certain type of oil, called oil sands or tar sands, from Canada to the United States?

One thing we know is that the pipeline has become a political hot potato in Washington. And as with everything that becomes a big political issue there, some of the facts get lost in translation.

Marketplace's Scott Tong from our Sustainability Desk has been to the oil sands and has this reality check.


Scott Tong: Let's first pick on pipeline opponents. Their starting point is that Canadian oil sands is dirty.

Yes, it takes extra energy to steam it out of the ground. But Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations looks at the whole life of a drop of oil. The extraction is not the main issue.

Michael Levi: Most of the emissions associated with oil come when you burn it in your car. So it's a distraction to some degree to focus on the emissions that come when you get it out of the ground.

Still, one climate scientist says there's so much oilsands in Canada it'll be game over for planet earth.

OK, let's say companies produce a whopping 10 million barrels of the stuff someday.

Andrew Leach: Ten million would take you to the year 3316 to extract all that oil.

University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. He says in a thousand years, other fuels like coal will have done far more damage.

Leach: To make a case where oil sands production, if we stop it then we somehow meaningful difference in the global emissions trajectory. I don't how that really makes sense.

Surely the renewable argument makes sense -- that we need a policy to promote them.

Amen, says Amy Myers Jaffe at Rice University. Thing is, weaning in energy time, takes decades.

Amy Myers Jaffe: In the immediate term, we have over 260 million automobiles on the road that use oil-based fuel. And we're going to need oil to supply all those cars.

Which is what the Keystone XL promoters want to hear. One of their big talking points is Canadian oil is ethical oil -- from your friends to the north.

Levi: To a good extent it is symbolic.

Again, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Levi: It may make people feel better to know that they bought their oil from a good guy rather than a bad guy. But so long as they're buying a lot of oil, they are propping up world prices and helping the bad guy get money.

Lately, Ottawa's made this threat: If America doesn't want our oil, we'll sell it to China.

Except that it's already on the way, says Calgary economist Peter Tertzakian.

Peter Tertzakian: There's pretty much unanimity within the Canadian oil and gas industry that we need to diversify our markets beyond one customer, that we need to participate in global growth markets, not singular, stagnant markets.

Finally, Keystone fans says it'll bring pipeline employment.

Yeah, some, says Andrew Leach.

Leach: It's thousands of construction jobs over the course of the building of a pipeline and hundreds of operation jobs. But it's not going to have a meaningful impact on the U.S. unemployment rate.

He finds many pipeline job projections:

Leach: Wildly exaggerated.

No surprise in an overheated election-year fight over one pipeline.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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Can we all just agree that Marketplace is all about propping up the old energy aristocracy? The opposite of sustainability.

Shame on Scott Tong and his mythological reasoning skills. "One climate scientist" ???? Like Bill McKibben is standing out on the moon somewhere?

How about the: we should use all the tar sands, because we'll be using all the coal idea ????? Like "Hey, Driver, go ahead and drink all the rum. You'll be drinking all the vodka anyway."

Jeez, Tong, have you ever heard of pipeline leaks? Pristine aquifers for human drinking water? Endangered species protections?

If "game over for the planet" doesn't compute in Scott Tong's head, he has no business breeding or writing for "sustainability."

Even a short news clip could mention the alternatives to the horrific environmental disaster that is tar sands extraction. We could get far more new jobs and greater energy benefit by merely supporting energy efficiency upgrades to our existing structures (drafty old buildings) and raising the efficiency requirements on our polluting vehicles (this has been a no-brainer since at least the early 1970's, when we realized we were paying for both sides of the struggle against fundamentalism). If the tar sands goes ahead and sends their product to China, at least we here were part of the energy solution, not part of the problem.
My heart is broken to think of the beautiful forests of Canada turned into a toxic waste site, when an easy alternative is available.

Extra energy to "steam it out of the ground" proves the title of this article accurate. Jeremy Hobson claims Scott Tong has been to the tarsands. Incredibly, he must have somehow not noticed a clearcut stripmine operation the size of the state of Florida, including a gas fracking operation pumping chemicals into land formerly occupied by First Nation People, cooking the tarsands using four fifths of the total energy obtainable from the oil itself just to get oil to drip out of it. In order to pipe this immorally obtained product, a toxic mix of volatile chemicals must be added, creating inevitable leakage from a pipeline unable to contain it due to its highly corrosive properties. Pipeline rupture includes air born volatiles compounds not only flamable, but deadly for plants and animals. There is far more damning evidence against this greed based, ill conceived project, but with just these few easily researchable facts, any person of average intelligence, with a reasonable moral compass might come to the conclusion that more research is in order. So, NPR, Scott, do the right thing. Get serious about an in depth study, on your part, to get information out there so we taxpayers, who pay for you to do this, have enough accurate information to make informed decisions about our futures. It appears, at a glance, that you are working for the few who will profit short term, from the taking of publicly owned resources at a monstrous and irreversible cost. History will judge all of us one way or another. It is your choice and your responsibility. sincerely,

Come on, Marketplace, give us a real article on the subject...
Nowhere did the article address the matter of risk. The U.S. heartland is in line for the libility of damage associated with spills, but NO ONE in the US is slated to benefit from the use of the finished product. The information that I have managed to glean indicates that the oil is going to the Gulf area refineries simply because the next stop is onto a ship to export the product to others, primarily within the Carribean Basin and South America, but also to some European markets.
Lets see if the proponents will be honest about the end users, and similarly honest in terms of the risk assessment pertaining to farmland and aquifers prior to pushing for approval of the project. After all, the delay currently in place is simply to buy time to do a non-biased impact assessment, since the original studies were done by a firm in bed with the project developers.

This report is from the Sustainability Desk, and not a mention of the incredible environmental impacts to the boreal forest and region. Shame on you. Not a balanced report!

Shipping coal to Newcastle:
Instead of piping Canadian crude all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, it makes more sense to expand a refinery in the Northern US where the US needs refined fuel. But it is in Canada's interest to get an outlet to world crude markets without piping through and over the cold and rugged mountains of the Canadian Rockies and southern Alaska.

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