Science Behind Hotly-Debated Keystone XL Pipeline

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been part of a controversy-filled discussion among lawmakers over the last few years. And the new Republican-led Congress is looking to move on passing approval of the pipeline among their first orders of business.

Jeff Danner writes the “Common Science” blog at and says the XL in the name of the pipeline is important.

“There already is a Keystone pipeline, and there has been for years,” he says. “The Keystone XL Pipeline is, essentially, two additions to that preexisting network.”

Danner says an oil-sand mixture would be coming down the pipeline from Canada, with the ultimate goal of rendering out gasoline or diesel as a final product.

He says there are several environmental issues that have been causing concern during the planning process for the pipeline.

“One is on the global-warming front,” Danner says. “We keep resetting a new normal. We used to wish we could keep carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 400 [parts per million]. Now, the environmental community and the international diplomatic community are trying to settle around a limit of 450.”

Danner adds remaining below the new limits would include leaving at least half of the known deposits of fossil fuels around the world in the ground. Exploiting the oil sands in Alberta would be a huge step toward exceeding the new goals, according to Danner.

The other major environmental concern has been the actual route of the XL pipeline.

“The new pipeline would go over the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says, “which is responsible for the fact that we are able to do things like grow wheat and raise cattle in places like Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma.”

Danner says concern is coming from environmentalists over contaminating that aquifer. But he adds the aquifer has not been damaged by some of the more than 2.5 million miles of pipeline that currently run across the United States.

“Hundreds of thousands of miles of that pipeline are already on top of the Ogallala Aquifer,” he says. “That aquifer is deep underground and the land there in not porous, unlike Alberta. It’s so nonporous that it’s hard for the water to get there.”

Danner says these pipelines eliminate the need for trucks or trains to haul the raw material needed to produce fuel, which would come at an even higher financial and environmental cost.

According to Danner, another issue concerning the pipeline is the value. He says once all things are considered, there is concern over whether the expected output of the pipeline is worth the infrastructure necessary for it to operate.

“It’s exceedingly more difficult and more energy intensive than if you had petroleum,” he says. “You have to pull it out of the ground, heat it up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit to get the sand and oil to come out of it. You’ve got to remove the nitrogen. You remove the metals.

“Even when you’re done, you’ve still got this semi-solid mass that you have to process further.”

Danner adds to solve the long-term environmental concerns associated with this project, the solution would be for the pipeline to not go forward – which is why the fight over the pipeline has been so intense.

“If you could stall it, it does buy you some more time if you have hopes that we’ll convince the world to leave the oil sands in the ground,” he says.

The newly-minted GOP-led Congress will likely pass the bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline. But the White House announced, on Tuesday, that President Obama would veto the bill, if it is passed through the legislature.

President Obama and Congressional leaders are slated to meet, next Tuesday, for the first time since the 114th Congress convened and discuss their priorities for the upcoming term – one of which is sure to be the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Advice for Opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is back in the news, with supporters touting its benefits for economic growth and with opponents changing their focus from its impact on global warming to the more immediate potential risks stemming from pipeline leaks.  As I have written before (see Keystone Controversy), I am opposed to its construction.

Let’s start with a bit of background.  The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport petroleum from the Canadian Oil Sands to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas.  The Canadian Oil Sands consist of heavy oils mixed with sand and a lot of other impurities in a viscous, gelatinous state.  At present they are recovered by excavation using the largest earth moving equipment ever built by humans, leaving behind a scarred, barren, and contaminated landscape. (See Keystone Controversy for a picture)  Only 20% of the oil in the deposits can be recovered via excavation.  The remainder is too deeply buried, so the plan is to inject steam into the ground to melt the oil and to then pump it out.  The petroleum from the oil sands is too thick to flow long distances in pipes even when heated.  Therefore, in order to be able to transport it by pipeline, it must first be diluted with lighter hydrocarbons, generally components of gasoline.  The resulting liquid is referred to as diluted bitumen, or in oil industry parlance, “dilbit”.

Below is a map of the proposed route of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Please note on the map the location of the existing Keystone Pipeline – the reason the proposed new one has the XL tagged on to its – and the Ogallala Aquifer.

admin-ajaxAs I have touched on in several earlier columns the only hope that we have of limiting the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 ppm or less, the concentration above which changes in our climate will have dramatically negative impacts on human civilization, is to leave well over half of all currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, forever.  Building the Keystone XL pipeline and proceeding with the extraction of the Canadian Oil Sands will result in us blowing right by the 450 ppm limit.  This is the primary reason to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.  Unfortunately, humans are not generally predisposed to making immediate sacrifices to stave off long-term risks, so the climate change-based opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has not been successful, at least not yet.

I reviewed the Ogallala Aquifer in “Water Part IV: When the Well Goes Dry”.  It is a massive underground water deposit which has been underneath the middle of the U.S. for millions of years.  At present it is being utilized for both drinking water and agricultural purposes at rates many, many times faster than its very slow replenishment rate from rain water seeping down to it from the surface.   Without the water from the Ogallala Aquifer, agricultural production in the U.S. would drop in a catastrophic fashion and thousands of western cities and towns would have no drinking water source.  So contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer with dilbit would be a disaster of epic proportions, and it is this risk on which the opponents of the pipeline are currently focusing.  This, I believe, is a mistake.

As you can see from the map below, the U.S. already has 2.5 million miles of pipeline for petroleum products and natural gas.  They bring crude petroleum to refineries and transport natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel to the rest of the country.  Generally speaking, these pipelines are 1 to 4 feet in diameter and are buried 3 to 6 feet underground.  From working in the chemical industry, I am quite familiar with the U.S. pipeline network, but my impression from the reports I read and hear is that neither the general public nor the news media seem to be aware of its existence.

The U.S. pipeline network is an essential element of our national economy.  If the pipeline network did not exist, the liquids it carries would have to be transported by truck and ship, which would require orders of magnitude more energy consumption and the construction of an armada of new trucks and ships.  Barring a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels in the U.S., switching from pipelines to trucks and ships is not feasible; they would never be able to keep up with demand.

While a pipeline rupture can cause a lot of damage, overall pipelines are a safer mode of transport for hazardous materials compared to trucks and ships because ruptures are far less frequent than oil tanker or tanker truck accidents.  An appropriate analogy is that pipelines are like air travel for people and oil tankers and tanker trucks are like cars.   Air travel involves far fewer accidents overall, but a plane crash is much more severe than a car accident.

So if pipeline accidents can be bad, why I am criticizing the opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline for focusing on their potential to contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer?  When you look at the maps above you can see that much of our current pipeline network, including the current Keystone Pipeline, is already on top of the Ogallala Aquifer.  Therefore, any additional contamination risk to the Ogallala Aquifer stemming from the Keystone XL pipeline would be mathematically negligible.

Furthermore, contamination of the Ogallala by pipeline leaks is not very likely.  A distinctive feature of the Ogallala is that it is so isolated from the surface it is difficult for even rain water, a free-flowing, low-viscosity liquid, to reach it from the surface. If rain water has difficulty reaching the Ogallala, then large hydrocarbon molecules leaking from a pipeline do not pose a particularly troubling contamination risk.  To a large degree, the statement in the previous sentence has already been field tested.  Much of the pipeline network above the Ogallala has been there for 50 years, during which time there have been many leaks, both large and small, and they have not contaminated the water below.

I understand and sympathize with the frustration that opponents to the extraction of the Canadian Oil Sands feel from the lack of success in stopping the project based on global warming arguments, but I would encourage them to stay with it.  Shifting the focus to pipeline leaks provides the other side with a much better chance of winning the public debate.  Mother Nature is stating her opinion on global warming with more authority of late.  The public will come around.

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