Tar sands are a type of unconventional petroleum deposit containing a dense form of petroleum mixed with sand, clay and water. Found in large quantities in Canada and Venezuela, tar sands once were considered too expensive to exploit, but higher oil prices and new technology have enabled them to be profitably extracted and refined by the oil industry.
While the oil industry may be reaping massive profits from the tar sands deposits in Canada, the local population and the environment are paying the price.
Making liquid fuels from tar sands requires large amounts of energy and water for steam injection and refining. This process generates two to four times more greenhouse gases per barrel than extraction of conventional oil.
In Canada, even before the oil is extracted from a surface mine, the industry first must raze large tracks of the Boreal forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then remove two tons of the sand itself. After the oil is processed, the toxic byproducts are discharged into tailings ponds. The toxic mine tailing ponds from Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada, now cover approximately 50 square miles.
Keystone XL Pipeline: Not in the National Interest
The Keystone pipeline, owned and operated by the TransCanada corporation, was developed to transport crude oil from the Athabasca tar sands to multiple destinations in the United States, including refineries in Illinois (the original Keystone pipeline), an oil distribution hub in Oklahoma (Keystone-Cushing Extension) and refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas (the proposed Keystone XL pipeline).
The first section of the Keystone pipeline became operational in June 2010. The Cushing-Extension was completed in February 2011. Since being proposed in 2008, the 1,700-mile Keystone XL extension has been met with strong opposition from landowners and indigenous communities in the path of the pipeline and from the environmental community.
The pipeline would carry the tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through the U.S. heartland, into Texas and to the Gulf of Mexico. It would run through the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation groundwater.
In November 2011, after tremendous pressure pipeline opponents, President Barack Obama postponed a decision until 2013. In response, Senate Republicans introduced legislation aimed at forcing the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days, unless the president declared the project not in the national interest. On Jan. 18, 2012, President Obama rejected the project, stating that the arbitrary deadline made it impossible to adequately review it.