Approximately 1.5 million barrels of tar sands crude oil is coming into the United States per day.
If the TransCanada Keystone I and XL pipelines are completed as proposed, that total could be increased to 2.5 million barrels by 2020 and 15 million barrels by 2030.
This poses multiple environmental concerns which need to be addressed sooner rather than later, said Dr. James Heisinger, University of South Dakota professor emeritus and chair of the state chapter of the Sierra Club.
Heisinger spoke about the issue recently during a presentation to the local Sierra Club at the WH Over Museum.
One issue concerns the composition of the tar sands themselves.
"The 'black gold' of the tar sands is bitumen, and it's like asphalt," Heisinger said. "You're going to have to liquefy it in some way. It's not just like asphalt, it's also got sand in it, so it has to be liquefied, separated from the sand. That requires steam.
"The steam means you have to use energy to heat the water. And then, when the water separates from the sand and the bitumen you have to dispose of the water in some reasonable way because it's toxic. So it's problematic," he said.
The water is stored in tailing lakes up to 25 miles across which don't evaporate very fast.
"Not to worry," Heisinger said. "There are levees surrounding these big toxic pools. …
"There are two types of levees," he continued. "The ones that have been breached, and the ones that will be breached. So it's a problem."
Once the sand is removed from the bitumen, it remains similar to asphalt, and thus needs to be treated with a diluent called dilbit.
"You can imagine … that great quantities of greenhouse gasses have to be produced in this process, and indeed they are," Heisinger said.
There also are problems with the pipelines, he said. Keystone I already has had more than 30 leaks, 14 of which occurred in the United States.
One of these leaks dumped more than 840,000 gallons – about 20,000 barrels – of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River, requiring a $750 million clean-up, Heisinger said.
A smaller leak – 63,000 gallons – occurred in the Yellowstone River, he said.
A unique problem arose when the diluent was placed in the icy water, Heisinger said. Because the diluent was lighter than the water, the bitumen separated from it and just sunk.
Clean-up cost $135 million, with less than 1 percent recovered, he said.
Because of its abrasive nature, bitumen has to be pumped at high pressure, which has caused some of the pipelines it to explode, Heisinger said.
One such case happened in Minnesota in 2006, leaving two workers dead.
"Some of these pipelines … really weren't designed for bitumen," Heisinger said. "They're old pipelines that have had pump houses added. We really haven't developed safety and spill response standards beyond the conventional oil pipeline.
"So this is a real struggle, something we're going to have to do if we're pumping viscous oil at high pressure," he said.
At the time the pipelines were proposed, many people were not thinking with an eye toward environmental consequences, Heisinger said.
When Keystone I was first proposed, the United States "was deep into Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.
"It was hard to oppose anything like that," he said. "It was hard to say, 'Well, gee, you shouldn't be bringing oil down from Canada, dirty oil, and refining it.' People were thinking about military and security. That's very different from 2008, which is when the XL was introduced to the public. At that time, though, many of us were worried about jobs."
That said, the information cited by Keystone regarding job creation is not quite what it appears, Heisinger said.
"They've loaded the deck," he said. "In TransCanada's 2008 presidential permit application, they said there would be 3,500-4,200 construction personnel. They didn't say that most of them would be Canadian. But most of them would be Canadian."
Keystone said an additional 20,000 jobs would come from building the actual pipeline, as opposed to installing it.
"Somebody's got to build the pipeline, but what they didn't say was that the steel comes from Poland, and the pipelines are constructed, some of them, in India, and so foreign labor is utilized," Heisinger said.
He added that according to the Cornell University Global Labor Institute, only 20 permanent jobs will be created on the pipeline and be constituted by people actually manning the pump houses.
"The XL will not claim a major source of U.S. jobs, nor will it claim any role at all in putting Americans back to work," the Cornell report said.
Additionally, there is no guarantee that the pipelines will have a positive effect on the price of fuel in the U.S. According to the report, it actually could contribute to a rise in gas prices.
For these and other reasons, Heisinger said people need to get involved to find a solution to the issues soon.
"It's going to be harder and harder for our nation to do anything about this … if we let it progress," he said.
To view the Cornell University Global Labor Institute's report on the Keystone XL pipeline, visit http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/globallaborinstitute/research/upload/GLI_KeystoneXL_Reportpdf.pdf.