Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Weak Case Against Filthy Oil

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 18, 2011 --  

Environmentalists have wielded a red state as an unusual tool in a pointless battle against the excesses of the oil industry.

The high profile fight over a new pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico is drumming up nearly universal hypocrisy as thick as Canadian tar.* Nowhere is this hypocrisy more apparent than in Omaha, Nebraska, the main city in a state crossed by the pipeline.

As one of the reddest of states, Nebraska is a surprising nexus for an environmental rebellion. Rural opponents, backed by Republican Governor Dave Heineman, worry about a pipeline marring their landscapes and polluting the water in the giant Ogallala Aquifer only a few feet below the sandy soil.1 But Nebraska is also a place where gas guzzling extended cab pickups and sport utility vehicles are the norm. More efficient Prius and Chevy Volts are rarely seen, and public transportation is derided as a safety net for the poor. Past Omaha's sprawling suburbs, distances are long and speed limits high. In short, Nebraskans are exactly the types of Americans that are driving the demand for Canadian oil.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, would connect the oil sands of Alberta with a pipeline hub in Steele City, Nebraska, eventually connecting to refineries in Illinois and Texas.2 Environmentalists say they are also concerned about the aquifer, but they do little to conceal their much greater contempt for the mining of the Canadian oil sands in general. It is this larger issue, and not a little-known Great Plains aquifer, that led Hollywood star Daryl Hannah to face arrest at a protest in front of the White House in August.3

To be fair, there is good reason for environmentalists to hate the mining of Canada's Oil Sands. The whole process is so inefficient that mining was commercially unviable until oil prices began to spike in the mid-2000s. The operation involves strip mining of millions of square miles of high plains and boreal forest to get at a thick bitumen-sand mixture below the surface. Various techniques like steam injection are used to separate the bitumen from the sand, and large-scale chemical processes needed to liquefy the bitumen into a consistency similar to conventional liquid oil. Huge piles of oily sand tailings laced with chemical residue are byproducts.

Extraction requires burning large amounts of oil and natural gas to fuel the equipment and generate the steam heat needed to loosen the oil from the icy Canadian soil. To folks worried about rising carbon dioxide levels, this makes oil from Canadian sands a far less environmentally friendly energy source than conventional liquid oil deposits.

Of course, conventional oil reserves in North America are dwindling, and those that remain in other parts of the world are concentrated in unfriendly places like Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Defenders of the pipeline project and proponents of the oil sands say it helps give North America energy independence.

This argument is utter nonsense -- given that there is a world market for oil, further Canadian production will do nothing to affect the price paid by Americans. Yet there are plenty of nonsensical arguments on the environmentalist side, too. One prominent environmentalist claims that exhaustion of the oil sands will put so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it will put the planet past a tipping point to runaway global warming.4 This is a red herring because the realistic alternative is not solar, but burning different fossil fuels instead, yielding a very similar result. Even the folksy Ogallala aquifer argument against the pipeline is nonsensical. Two other existing pipelines already cross Nebraska's beloved aquifer.5 Why have these not damaged the aquifer, and why did nobody speak up when those were built?

The debate, in the end, is a huge waste of time and energy on both sides. If the pipeline is built, it is no more likely to harm the aquifer than existing pipelines. And if it is not built, it will do nothing to stop the filthy extraction of the Canadian oil sands -- the output will continue to flow in existing and other pipelines on the drawing board. And even if environmentalists could somehow stop the mining of the oil sands, it would do nothing to prevent the continued reliance of the world on fossil fuels, particularly oil, and the ensuing rise in carbon dioxide levels.

If environmentalists really want to stop mining of the Canadian oil sands, then they should focus their energies on helping create cheaper alternative energy sources that can beat the oil sands on price. In the end, only market forces, not environmental forces, will save Alberta from the blade of the bulldozer.

* Though often called tar sands, Canada's oil sands actually contain bitumen, an extremely thick oil. Tar is a different substance and a byproduct of coal processing.

Related Web Columns:

Higher Prices Now!
Weaning Consumers From Cheap Oil
, June 24, 2008

The End of Oil, June 13, 2006


1. Office of the Nebraska Governor, Governor Calls on President to Deny Pipeline Permit, August 31, 2011

2. TransCanada, Keystone Project, as posted October 18, 2011

3. ABC News, Daryl Hannah Arrested Outside White House During Protest of Tar Sands Pipeline, August 30, 2011

4. Climate Storytellers, Silence Is Deadly, I'm Speaking Out Against The CanadaŠU.S. Tar Sands Pipeline, June 4, 2011

5. Canadian Pipeline Association, CAPP Crude Oil Pipeline & Refinery Map, June 2011