As conventional oil – oil extracted using traditional oil wells – becomes increasingly uneconomical to extract, unconventional sources are being turned to as a solution to meet the global demand for petroleum-based energy sources. One unconventional source shown to have abundant reserves is oil sands, also known as tar sands. Canada is home to one of the largest oil sands deposits on earth.  Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from this supply, the substance, which resembles cold molasses when at room temperature, is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

With the addition of oil sands to its proven reserves list, Canada is now second place amongst oil-producing nations, behind Saudi Arabia. Despite the promising amount of reserves that can be added to the global supply from oil sands, the topic is sparking a lot of controversy amongst public opinion and is playing a large role in defining U.S. energy infrastructure priorities.

Bitumen, the substance found in oil sands, was at one time light crude oil. Geologists theorize that tens of millions of years ago, oil was pushed up during the formation of the Rocky Mountains, allowing it to reach depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive, which degraded the oil to bitumen. Bitumen is not oil or tar, but a semi-solid degraded form of oil. Once extracted, bitumen deposits can be sold as raw bitumen, or upgraded to synthetic crude oil frequently refined for use in essentials such as asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel. The upgrading is done by increasing the ratio of hydrogen to carbon by either removing carbon (coking) or adding hydrogen (hydro-cracking).

As resources become scarcer and more expensive, refined bitumen seems like a great additional energy source as the U.S. strives to diversify its energy portfolio. Canada’s oil sands are one of the largest oil deposits on earth.  According to a recent Vital Signs publication by Worldwatch, oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta added an additional 143 billion barrels to the country’s oil reserves in 2010, increasing Canada’s total reserves to 173 billion barrels. This resource now accounts for about half of Canada’s crude oil production, with expectations by the Canadian Ministry of Environment that production will double over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels a day. When the Oil and Gas Journal added the Alberta oil sands to its list of proven reserves, Canada moved into second place among oil-producing nations, behind Saudi Arabia. The proven reserves of oil sands in Alberta’s three main deposit sites are eight times those of the entire U.S.

Rivers, over the last tens of millions of years, have eroded away billions of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, making it more accessible to extract.  Nonetheless, the bitumen extraction process is still very environmentally, energy, and water intensive. Bitumen can be extracted through the traditional mining process or the in-situ recovery process, both of which require hundreds of thousands of acres of forests to be cleared. In the Athabasca Valley in Canada, for every barrel of oil extracted from the oil sands layer by the mining process, up to two tons of dirt and peat need to be removed. From there, large hydraulic and electrically powered shovels dig up oil sands and load them into enormous trucks that can carry up to 320 tons of tar sands per load to refining facilities where the mixture is intensely heated to process out the bitumen. Every day in the Athabasca Valley of Canada, more than a million tons of sand is mixed with 200,000 tons of water that must be heated to 175 degrees Fahrenheit to separate the bitumen from the sands. The viscous oil must then be rigorously treated in order to convert it to an upgraded crude oil to be refined to produce gasoline and other fuels. This process requires the bitumen to be heated again, this time to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, while also being compressed to more than 100 atmospheres. The by-product is waste water comprised of a mixture of water, clay, sand, and residual bitumen deposited in tailings ponds where the sand settles. Overall, more than two tons of oil sands must be dug-up, moved, and processed to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil.


Pictured is one of the in situ processes used to extract bitumen. In-situ extraction can use up to twice as much energy as the mining process due to the high amounts of steam or thermal energy injected.

An in situ recovery process is used for oil sand reserves buried more than 75 meters (m) deep, but most often reserves are more than 350-600m below the surface. Because of the depth, the bitumen in these reserves is less viscous (it can flow more easily) and can be extracted without the sand. This means there are no tailings ponds, but the in situ recovery process can use up to twice as much energy as mining due to the steam, solvents, or thermal energy injected to access the reserves.  If water is not recycled, every one barrel of bitumen requires 2-3 barrels of water. Natural gas is the most common fuel used for heating purposes during production, which account for 9.3-15.8 grams per megajoule (g/MJ) of associated CO2 emissions. Overall, the production process requires an energy input equivalent to about 30 percent of the energy value produced. This is significant when compared to conventional oil and gas production, which only require an energy input equivalent to 6 percent of energy value produced. For the Canadian oil and gas sector as a whole, bitumen production will result in greenhouse gas emissions rising nearly one-third from 2005-2020, even as other production methods, like conventional oil, are reducing their emissions. Since the oil and gas sector was the second largest contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2005, (transportation being first) significantly increasing emissions in this sector makes it questionable as to whether Canada will meet its 17 percent emissions reduction levels from 2005 to 2020, as agreed to at Copenhagen in 2009.


The $7 billion 1700 mile pipeline expansion project would carry diluted bitumen from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to markets in the Texas Gulf Coast

For energy security reasons, the U.S. is eager to take advantage of a North American source of crude oil. The Keystone Pipeline, which was approved by Canada’s National Energy Board in September 2007 and the U.S. Department of State in March 2008, plays a crucial role in linking the Canadian oil supply to U.S. refining markets. In June 2010, the Keystone Pipeline’s first phase was completed, which converted an already existing natural gas pipeline into a crude oil pipeline and built a pipeline that brings crude oil non-stop from Canada to the Midwest U.S. The second phase went into operation in February 2011, which connects the pipeline from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma, another oil marketing and refining hub. The Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project is the most recently proposed addition to the already built pipeline. It would connect Alberta with Port Arthur, Texas, another oil marketplace. A map showing the paths of all of these pipelines can be seen below.


The proposed addition to the pipeline is raising varied public response. Opponents of the project, primarily environmentalists and communities along the proposed pipeline route, greatly oppose the pipeline extension due to the high greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of boreal forests associated with oil sands, and the potential for spills that would jeopardize U.S. water supplies. Overall, opponents to the project believe that promoting continued dependency on fossil fuels, no matter where they originate, is not an acceptable objective.

Proponents of the project, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, say it will create jobs, bring needed revenue to state budgets, and improve our energy security by increasing oil supplies from a friendly neighbor. Some contend that if oil sands cannot flow to the U.S., infrastructure will develop to export the oil to other countries, meaning the oil sands will be exploited regardless, while the U.S. will need to continue to depend on unstable foreign sources for their oil needs. Finally, having recently permitted the original Keystone Pipeline, proponents of the project argue that the State Department could face criticism if it were to come to a different conclusion on similar environmental issues for the proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion permit.

Opponents have recently taken their opposition to the next level. From August 20th to September 3rd, people are engaging in civil disobedience in front of the White House in an effort to encourage President Obama to veto the decision to construct the pipeline. Over 2,000 people from all 50 U.S. states as well as from Canada have registered to take part in similar sit-ins of 50-100 people every day during this time frame.  So far, nearly 500 people have been arrested, including founder, Bill Mckibben, and NASA scientist James Hansen.

Bill Mckibben, Author and Co-Founder of, participated in Civil Disobedience on August 20th, 2011 at a sit-on in DC against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

It is hard to imagine that limiting pipeline capacity to U.S. markets will limit the development of Canada’s oil sands. Due to the global infrastructure and demand for fossil fuels, it is likely Canada would be able to export the product elsewhere, no matter how environmentally destructive the oil sand extraction process. However, the decision on the fate of Keystone XL will be symbolic of what the U.S. administration’s priorities are. Investing in infrastructure to further promote fossil fuel use in the U.S. will create yet another roadblock for the development of a future clean energy infrastructure.

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