Bitumen from Alberta's tar sands deposits
In a new report, The impact of Tar Sands Pipeline Spills on Employment and the Economy
, the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University has concluded that spills from pipelines of tar sands-derived oil are three times as likely to occur per mile as spills of crude oil. And when they do, the researchers say, the damage is greater, the public health risks larger, the clean-up harder, the costs higher. Not exactly good news for the people, water resources and ecology of the six states that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will cross if it is approved.
In transport, tar-sands oil is actually diluted bitumen, viscous and highly corrosive. When it is spilled, it behaves differently than does crude oil. In water, it sinks rather than floats, making skimmers useless for cleanup. In 2010, pipelines were already transporting 600,000 barrels of tar-sands oil in the United States. Spills are not as rare as TransCanada, Keystone's builder, would have everyone believe. The worst so far, and the first tar-sands spill into a major American waterway, occurred on the Kalamazoo River in 2010:
[O]fficials are still struggling to clean up the river. It was the first-ever major spill of this type of heavy oil, and it blindsided EPA cleanup crews: recovering the 1.2 million gallons of oil that have been cleaned up so far has cost the pipe's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, roughly $725 million—10 times as much, per liter, as the average spill of conventional crude. Ralph Dollhopf, who led the EPA's response to the incident, told local media that the agency had to "write the book" on dealing with a cleanup of tar sands bitumen. [...]
A study of historic oil spills in the U.S. reported the average clean-up cost for heavy crude of $18.95 per litre. The Kalamazoo spill has so far cost over 10 times that much and counting.
Among the GLI's findings:
• 91 significant Keystone XL spills can be expected over 50 years. A previous study concluded that “…[T]he benzene released by a Keystone XL worst-case spill to groundwater in the Sandhills region of Nebraska would be sufficient to contaminate 4.9 billion gallons of water at concentrations exceeding the safe drinking water levels. [The spill] would pose serious health risks to people using that groundwater for drinking water and irrigation.”
• According to a 2010 report by the Michigan Department of Community Health, health care providers identified 145 patients who had reported illness or symptoms associated with exposure to the Kalamazoo tar-sands spill. In a door-to-door survey of 550 people in four communities and one workplace along the river, 58 percent of the reported health effects, including headaches, respiratory problems and nausea. Some went to area hospitals for treatment.
• Enbridge, the pipeline builder, bought 130 houses within 200 feet of the river where the spill was worst. The long-term impact on real estate values has yet to be determined since on one home has so far been sold to private parties.
• The business-related effects were relatively small: a family-owned campsite and a day-care center employing 12 people closed permanently as a result of the spill. A carpet business suffered a sustained loss of business.
The GLI researchers support an alternative approach to energy that does not include pipelines like Keystone XL:
Investing in renewable and clean energy creates jobs. for every
$1 million invested, 16.7 jobs are created. By contrast, $1 million invested in fossil fuels generates 5.3 jobs. A $150 billion investment in the fossil fuel industry would create about 788,000 jobs. That same investment in clean energy would create more than 2.5 million jobs. [...]
The renewable energy industry is growing at twice the rate of the overall economy. Today the clean energy economy employs 2.7 million workers overall. Between 2003 and 2010—a time when many industries were cutting jobs—clean energy economy employers added 500,000 jobs. In contrast, the top five oil companies generated $546 billion in profits between 2005 and 2010, but reduced their combined U.S. workforce by 11,200.
Replacing oil in transportation, its greatest use, is no short-term affair. Although renewable energy installations are rapidly growing, transitioning away from fossil fuels with all due haste will require a comprehensive energy policy. That's something that hasn't been updated since 1979. Instead, the fossil-fuels giants have remained in control, burning up these resources and spewing their residue and off-gasses into the air we breathe and the higher reaches of the atmosphere with little or no concern for tomorrow. The Keystone XL pipeline is a project with a half-century life span that will transport dirty oil and maintain the junk we've been main-lining for the past century-plus.
A comprehensive energy policy is nothing without a budget to match. While the Obama administration has put more money into renewables than any presidency, it's still far from enough. A public-private investment of around $150 billion a year (1 percent of gross domestic product) would make a difference in a hurry according to Green Prosperity: How Clean-Energy Policies Can Fight Poverty and Raise Living Standards in the United States. That's a lot of money. But it's not mere expenditure on some pet project. It's an investment in a new world. One not dependent on environmentally unsound resources like tar sands oil or the inevitably flawed conduits that carry them.