Gaius Publius: A Primer – What’s in a “Tar Sands” Pipeline?

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By Gaius Pubius, a professional writer living on the West Coast. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius. Cross posted from AmericaBlog

In the wake of renewed interest in the Keystone Pipeline project and the likelihood that Obama will eagerly approve it unless we stop him, there’s a lot of interest in what actually flows through those pipes.

Van Jones has called it “planet-cooking goo.” I’ve called it “sludge.” But what is it really?

To answer that question, we need to look at:

▪ What is “tar sand“?
▪ What is extracted from it (answer, bitumen or “tar”)?
▪ What is done to the bitumen to make it “flow”?

All of which produces a great bottom line. Click any of those links to jump to that section.

The primary source, though not the only source, of this information is a great article and slideshow at the Scientific American website. Feel free to click and read as we walk through this material.

What is “tar sand”?

“Tar sand” is sand with a mix of tar, clay and water stuck to the surface of its grains. Yes, literally tar (more on that below).

To see tar sand in action, watch just a few seconds of this video, part of a piece made by Raul Grijalva and Adam Sarvana [corrected] to illustrate some of what’s wrong with Keystone and why it should be opposed. What Adam dumps into the water is clumped tar sand.

Watch the whole video if you like, but for this, the first few seconds after you hit Play is enough. (Note: The video and text that overlays it implies that “liquified” sand flows through the pipes; it doesn’t. The part about sinking in water is correct, but it’s not “liquified tar sand” that sinks, it’s the tar itself after the sand is removed.)

This is a picture of tar sand from the SA slideshow (click to open in a new tab). The caption reads (my emphasis):

Water and a film of bitumen [tar] surrounds each grain of sand, making Alberta’s oil sands the easiest to work with to free oil. A typical “ore” will be 73 percent sand, 12 percent bitumen, 10 percent clay and 5 percent water. There are an estimated 170 billion barrels worth of bitumen in Alberta that could be recovered with today’s technology, which means Canada has the third-largest proved oil reserves in the world behind Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

More on that term “bitumen” in a moment. Are you noting the industry-friendly phrasing in this, by the way? “Alberta’s oil sands” indeed; as you’ll read shortly, it’s not oil until it’s processed. It’s not even crude oil yet. And the oh-boy cheerleading for oil reserves in the last sentence doesn’t sound like the writer thinks of oil as Demon Carbon, Killer of Grandkids, does it?

Tar sand clumps together. That clumping is so pronounced that the gluing makes them acts like rocks, as Raul’s video shows above. Here’s a before-and-after picture of a “crusher bit” used to de-clump the tar sand (again, opens in a new tab).

The first step in manufacturing (there are many) is to remove the sand, clay and water and accumulate just the tar. This is done at or near the site where the tar sand is mined (yes, by scoop-loaders and dump truck like these).

The tar is removed in vats by adding boiling water, creating a froth that causes the sand to sink and the tar to rise and then overflow to be captured for further processing and shipment. As the slide-writer says:

Add hot water to tar sands and, with a little mixing, the oil, water and sand begin to separate. “You take the ore, mix it up with warm water, and the bitumen floats to the top and you skim it off,” explains Murray Gray, scientific director of the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta. “The sand sinks to the bottom and the clays cause problems everywhere in the middle.”

This is what the industry-friendly text above, from the University of Alberta, means by “warm water”:

At a typical mining operation large separation cells—giant funnels that mix 80-degree Celsius [176°F] hot water and chemicals to reduce acidity with the oil sands—produce a bitumen froth that overflows into catchment basins. From ore to froth takes roughly 30 minutes, and the process is measured in cubic meters per hour. The remaining sand and water are pumped to vast ponds for settling and storage.

This is one of the vats; notice the “froth” oozing out in the left foreground. That’s where the tar is, or as the experts call it, “bitumen.”

What is “tar”?

Here’s where it gets interesting — if you don’t already think the strip-mining and the toxic “tailings” like filthy water and other residue from what you’ve just read about is interesting.

The terms “tar,” “pitch,” “asphalt,” and “bitumen” are nearly synonymous, so long as you’re referring to something naturally occurring. In fact, bitumen was once called “asphaltum.” The exceptions are “road asphalt” and “road tar,” which are manufactured substances that don’t have a lot of the gunk that the natural stuff has. (All of this is explained here, if you’re interested.)

What we care about is the natural product, tar or bitumen — what it is, what it contains, and how it acts.

What is tar? It’s not just a mixture of chemicals in the ordinary sense. It’s something called a colloidal suspension — in this case, small particles of a bunch of solids suspended in a liquid. (Milk is also a suspension, by the way, but a liquid-in-liquid one.) That matters because suspensions can be made to separate, and when that occurs to bitumen, even the diluted bitumen (called “dilbit”) found in the pipelines, the solids sink in water.

After all of the refining and manipulation that makes it possible to move diluted bitumen goo through a pipe (more below), at the end of the day, it’s still a suspension, a solid in a liquid. When the pipe breaks or leaks, the solids separate from the lighter liquid and end up underwater or carried underground by rain.

The biggest onshore pipeline oil spill in the U.S. was a diluted bitumen–containing pipe that leaked into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. They’re still trying to get the tar from the bottom of the river. Many think it will be there almost forever. From the NRDC blog:

Nearly three years after Enbridge [a Canadian oil company, like TransCanada] spilled a million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River watershed and almost a billion dollars has been spent on cleanup, and 38 miles of that river are still contaminated.

There’s crap on the surface of the river, but also junk on the river bed itself. Imagine cleaning a river bed.


Keep that in mind — bitumen (tar) is a suspension, so even when it’s diluted, it’s still a suspension. It isn’t “dissolved” in its dilutant the way salt is dissolved in water. It’s a suspension when they pull it out of the ground, and it’s a suspension until they take it apart at the refinery. The solids (or near-solids) will always separate out when a pipeline spills or leaks.

What does bitumen contain? The stuff is complex, chemically. Different deposits contain different ingredients, but some ingredients are frequently found (and very nasty):

One writer stated although a “considerable amount of work has been done on the composition of asphalt, it is exceedingly difficult to separate individual hydrocarbon in pure form”, and “it is almost impossible to separate and identify all the different molecules of asphalt, because the number of molecules with different chemical structure is extremely large“.

Most natural bitumens contain sulfur and several heavy metals, such as nickel, vanadium, lead, chromium, mercury, arsenic, selenium, and other toxic elements.

Are these elements present in the bitumen-containing pipelines? Yes. They’re removed at the refineries, where oil and gas are extracted and made. But at the source, where the mining occurs, the only task is to remove the sand, as much of the clay as possible, and get the stuff in condition to flow.

How does bitumen act? In addition to its properties as a suspension with heavier-than-water solids in it (see above), it’s extremely viscous, thick and resistant to flowing. It does flow, but at a snail’s pace at room temperature. (Actually, snails move faster, as the famous “pitch drop” experiment shows. It took 70 years for eight drops to fall.) We’re calling it a “solid” but it’s technically a “near-solid.”

Why does that matter? Because of what it takes to move it through a pipe.

How are tar sands processed for “shipping” to refineries?

For the obvious reason (expense), tar sand mining companies want to do the least they have to in order to ship their product to refineries, where actual oil and gas products are made. Those refineries can be near the mining sites, further inland (some Alberta pipelines terminate in the Midwest, for example) or on coasts near shipping ports.

Tar intended for shipment to Asia and other world markets are often refined near places that can also handle super-tankers, such as the Texas gulf coast. The proposed new Keystone Pipeline extension is intended to ship tar (diluted bitumen, “dilbit”) to Texas.

That in itself should tell you all you need to know about who the customer is going to be (hint: not you). And it should also tell you to start digging into how many of these “Canadian” companies are partly owned by Chinese companies.

But back to shipping via pipelines. The bitumen “froth” is converted both to usable oil products and to pipe-able bitumen via “upgrading” — partial refining near the mining sites. Some upgrading produces usable oil products:

To turn thick bitumen into saleable petroleum products, oil sands operators rely on upgraders—mini-refineries to transform bitumen into crude oil using heat, pressure and chemistry like the Syncrude Canada plant pictured here. The Suncor Energy plant produces enough diesel to fuel its own heavy hauler mining trucks as well as much of Alberta’s diesel demand—some 30,000 barrels of diesel alone per day.

Here’s a picture of that lovely Syncrude Canada plant in operation. There are also “coking” operations at these sites. The byproducts are coke (dirty coal) plus some of the stuff used to dilute the bitumen for shipping (piping). Read the following carefully; it covers both aspects:

At the core of the upgrading plant looms the 88-meter-tall coking tower, where bitumen is cracked into shorter-chain hydrocarbons, including diesel and naphtha, used to dilute some bitumen and ship it via pipeline instead of upgrading it on-site.

What remains are deposits of nearly pure carbon, known as coke, which is essentially low-grade and very dirty coal that the plant burns as fuel to generate heat and electricity. Suncor alone makes 500,000 tons of coke per year.

So naphtha, diesel and other hydrocarbon products are produced by “upgrading” some of the bitumen, which is then used to dilute the rest of the bitumen for shipping via pipelines.

So what flows through the pipes?

If you thought that diluted bitumen, as produced by the upgrading plants, is now capable of flowing through a pipeline to the cash registers in Texas (or wherever), you’d be wrong. Even in diluted form, bitumen doesn’t flow. To make it flow, it has to be heated — often to 150°–160°F — and then forced through the pipelines under high pressure.

So what flows through the pipeline? Keeping those cash registers in mind, you now have all the pieces. Tar sand pipelines contain:

A carbon-rich colloidal suspension …

Made up of lighter-than-water, easily-evaporated toxic liquids (like diesel) …

And heavier-than-water solids (the tar or bitumen itself) that sink to the bottom of rivers and below the mud in fields …

Which has been heated hot enough to burn your hand — or accelerate the external corrosion of the pipeline itself, including pinhole breaks …

Which has been forced to move under high pressure …

And which contains poisons and toxins like sulphur, arsenic, nickel, lead and mercury …

All so megalomaniacal carbon billionaires can make even more money.

That’s what flows through the pipelines. Or to put it more simply:

What flows through the pipes is the unmonetized assets of the try-and-stop-me CEO class, which if it spills, will poison everything it touches for decades or centuries, and if it gets into the air, will turn most of our grandchildren — the ones that survive — into hunter-gatherers.

Bill McKibben counts those unmonetized assets (proven reserves) at $27 trillion dollars. Add in reserves that are likely but not proven, plus the ones in the melting Arctic that are yet to be found, and you’re talking real money. The billionaire class won’t walk away from that in a hurry.

And that, kids, is Science Talk for today. We learned a little about a lot, didn’t we — everything from colloidal suspensions and bitumen “froth,” to billionaire psychopathology and cash registers in Texas. To those of you who got to this end of the post, my thanks!

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  1. psychohistorian

    Nice posting.

    Unfortunately it is about how sickly controlled we are by the global inherited rich.

    I get mad at the faith breathers for deluding folks into thinking that we are somehow the Gawds of our world rather than respectful stewards for our grandchildren. The faith breathers are the biggest supporters of our current system of inheritance and accumulating private ownership of property. They would not exist with out it.

  2. Conscience of a Conservative

    Tar Sands gets exploited regardless. The discussion is really about whether the oil gets shipped via railroad or pipeline. Warren Buffett will be quited pleased if the pipe-line doesn’t occur.

    1. pretzelattack

      i think they will just swallow real hard and then talk about the pretty speech he just gave, and mention that his hands are tied.

    2. Susan the other

      That is why we need to get rid of cars with combustion engines and replace them with the required clean public transportation. Get rid of the need. Eliminate the demand. Eliminate the profit. Replace oil with clean fuels asap. Do geothermal everywhere. Wind, water, solar. Get rid of combustion cars immediately. It will make all the difference.

      1. jfleni

        Elon Musk (one of the very few billionaires with vision) says combustion-engine cars are already outmoded, that electric cars are the logical, way of the future; his detailed arguments make good sense.

        That is very close to happening; when it does, all the other huge disadvantages of cars (either gas or electric, like blood-spattered highways, huge land areas for parking, the impossibility of transporting many thousands of people in individual tin boxes, and so forth), will become painfully apparent, and we will finally have what the plutocrats never wanted and have always tried to destroy: Good public transportation, nearly all of it electric in some form.

        Then the tar-grubbers will stay as far away from the mess in Alberta and elsewhere as they physically can. Maybe a new “development” just for them down in the tar pits is justified while the rest of us breathe freely. Actually, the plutocrats will be happy to let the Canucks and the rest of us do the cleanup at our own expense if we are stupid enough to allow it.

        1. diane

          Not in defense of oil whatsoever but the only vision Musk has is for his own benefit, if you believe he has societal welfare at mind you haven’t read enough, or have been misinformed.

          And if you believe he’s benefiting the environment, or society, with his Tesla models and Tesla ‘charging stations’ (many, if not most, of which will have to suck from an already weakened electrical grid, exclusively for Tesla owners at the expense of dimming others basic home lighting), I really don’t know what to say.

          1. diane

            The fact of the matter is that the Tesla is a stunningly PUBLICALLY $UB$IDIZED, classist and punitive, energy glutton, show toy for a teeny eeny weeny handful of those who have enough wealth not to have to ever drive an auto; which no one (and there are still millions and millions of them), who still has to actually rely on vehicles to do the basics necessary to stay alive, could ever afford. A design feature, not a bug.

      2. Conscience of a Conservative

        Careful, we’ll end up like Denmark, getting half our energy from wind farms, while paying above average prices for it, and making our country uncompetitive in the process. And we already have cars like the Chevy Prius which can only be justified by consumers who don’t care about a return on their investment.

    3. diptherio

      I’m told by a pipeline engineer that the Alberta tar sands are currently being trucked. His view is that a pipeline is much safer than either rail or road, and it’s going to be coming south one way or another…

      1. Thor's Hammer

        And 120 degree heat waves are coming one way or the other.
        As Miami and Lower Manhattan sink beneath the melt water from the Greenland ice cap and the Arctic permafrost turns to methane.

        Are humans smarter than lemmings?

        1. Emma

          Nah….to make oily human brains the size of peas, you’d have to pump them up …..
          Didn’t James Hansen predict that the earth will replicate Venus and heat up (greedily in case of earth) unrestrained to the point where life becomes impossible?
          The problem today is that when you get mega-margins a barrel, any price that the US government seems to place on emitting carbon into the atmosphere becomes small change. The “Energy Return on Investment” rules the day.

      2. Thor's Hammer

        The PIAMOS Study predictions:

        50% probability of Arctic sea ice vanishing in summer by 2015
        95% probability of Arctic sea ice vanishing in summer by 2018

        Whether the dates on these projections are accurate or not, it is a virtual certainty that the world will see an ice-free arctic ocean in the near future for the first time since humans evolved on the planet. Industrial civilization built upon fossil fuel energy has already baked that much greenhouse effect into the geophysical system.

        The Greenland ice cap contains enough fresh water to raise sea levels worldwide by 23.6 feet. Once the arctic seas become ice free, the albedo effect alone guarantees that the ice cap will begin melting at an accelerated rate.

        Bill Gates thinks that seeding clouds to decrease the amount of solar energy hitting the earth’s surface is a technical problem on the same order as building a new computer operating system. If you believe that Gates and his ilk are Gods then go back to playing computer games on your I-Pad. But if you believe that we live in a universe governed by the laws of physics you should be very concerned about the world you and your children are going to have to adapt to if we are to survive as a species.

        1. Thor's Hammer

          And a fantasy world where everybody drives $80,000 Tesla electric cars isn’t anything but another cuddly delusion that keeps us from understanding the problem.

  3. High noon

    Wonder when Obama will make the announcement? There’s no doubt in my mind that he will approve it. When that happens, administration friendly environmentalists will be forced to swallow real hard, if not outright choke.

    Change you can believe in.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      How he will backtrack? Probably not at all. He will simply announce we are finishing the pipeline since we are the greatest nation on earth and as President, it’s his job to make sure we are never anything less. After all he’s the president. He can say the opposite today of what he said yesterday. As the NPR ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, once cooed about both Bush and Obama (to justify NPR’s use of the term, enhanced interrogation instead of the more factual torture), “If the President says we don’t torute, it must be true.”

    2. Susan the other

      This is why we must demand the elimination of hydrocarbon combustion engines in personal automobiles. Not an empty demand because can we act together to boycott them – so we actually do have the power. But now it has to be worldwide. We cannot rely on Obama. He is part of the Tribe of Gollum. They will never serve a better world. It is almost impossible to control them.

  4. rob

    considering the pipeline is already being built,the finishing of it is a foregone conclusion.
    The southern portion is already being built.The land has been confiscated,thru eminent domain in some cases.This southern branch will have to be connected to something.

    Considering the scope of a project like this.It takes time to engineer,source materials,equiptment,workers,etc.This is what is happening right now.To be sure.The seeming non-action in the north, is confused by many as “nothing” happening.
    When there is a southern branch,ready and waiting.
    A northern source in need of transport….
    the political will to “fill the gap” in the north(whatever that will actually mean),will materialize.Any enviromental concerns will be “lesser”, in terms of value, compared to the “necessity”, the pipeline will address.
    The play is already written.We are just now waiting to see which “theatre” it plays in.

  5. John F. Opie

    Well, besides from the polemics, that was actually fairly accurate.

    This is one of the cases where truth is stranger than fiction. Keystone is popular with a few of the oil processing companies far downstream: it is unpopular with those owning lots of rail stock (and if you look at rail tank car stock utilization, it’s waaaay up)

    In order to make the semi-finished tars transportable, they’re mixed with several chemicals: first and foremost are thinners and surfactants to make sure that the stuff can actually be transported and not simply sit there like a lump of … tar. If you are a supplier who wants to use the pipeline to transport your product to a customer, you have to modify what you are delivering to match that what the pipeline delivers, meaning that a single product comes out of any pipeline (duh). The producer must provide the transformation or pay for someone else to do so, reducing their profitability.

    Tar sands are also not univariate, but differ in composition. Pipleline needs a constant product, requiring the preliminary work to get whatever the producer pulls out of the ground into a standardized product. Forget to pull out some sulfurs and you contaminate everyone else’s product, i.e. the pipeline people are real sticklers for making sure you are liable.

    From the producer’s standpoint, the only good thing about the pipeline is that it gets the goods to a certain set of customers where there is an active spot market and active trading to exploit.

    If you’re really interested in maximizing your profits, however, then the pipeline sucks: you carry the costs of transformation and transportation to your customer (the customer always buys from the pipeline access point). Given the access to shipping, the pipeline makes sense if and only if you are planning to sell to the Gulf area market, which to an increasing extent is an export market.

    If a producer wants to maximize their profits, then rail car sales make more sense: customer buys from point of origination and pays for transportation. You can also fine-tune what you are selling to meet customer needs: some of the oil heading over to Vancouver is what is called heavy fuel distillate, which goes directly into large ship fuel tanks that provide fuel for the very large engines that drive modern container ships, without further refining.

    There’s just one factual error in Gaius’ article: the tar sand product entering the pipeline is no longer high-temperature, but has largely cooled to ambient. Friction, despite the surfactants, is enough to keep the mixture at temperatures warm enough that the pipeline doesn’t need to be heated in winter to ensure that the mixture flows, but it’s nowhere near 85° C, more like 35° C. Pipeline steel is a specialty steel designed to handle multiples of that temperature and really isn’t an issue here.

    The real reason that President Obama appears to favor approving the pipeline is that the companies who stand to profit are contributors to the Democratic Party. So is Warren Buffet, but he doesn’t want the pipeline, since he owns so much railroad stock. There is vastly more flexibility in rail transport, I think, but given the increasing appearance of rentier economics under the current administration, expect that it will be implemented.

    The real killer is when gas is also exported: instead of using it at home to keep prices down, it’ll be exported to other countries for significant expenses for the shipping companies involved. Prices will then move to world levels, and the only ones profiting from the increase in gas prices will be the shipping companies. Again, who donate to the Democratic Party and are buying their markets by getting the government to grant export licenses…

    1. Roaring Mouse

      Pipelines are cheaper to the end-user than railcars when there is a large amount of material to transport over a long period of time. Just listen to Eagle Ford shale producers and their lament about a need for more pipes to transport crude through. The suggestion to only make shale nat gas available in the domestic market is pure protectionism. To enhance market efficiency, the nat gas market needs to become global, just like the oil market. There will still be an inherent cost advantage to US users of US shale oil and gas (the cost to transport it).
      Every somewhat-commercial source of NRG has costs that can be measured in terms of pollution. Author should similarly detail the manufacture of solar panels. Lots of toxic elements needed. Wind is interesting, because nobody knows the impacts of changing/diminishing wind speed around wind farms. If you believe in global warming, this should be a fascinating, code-red priority.
      Back to oil and ‘tar-sand’, the refineries are pretty good places to remove the toxic elements involved in the process.

      1. American Slave

        “Author should similarly detail the manufacture of solar panels. Lots of toxic elements needed.”

        That’s not exactly accurate at all as there are many different types of solar cell such as copper/iridium cells and the toxic one most people hear about are the gallium/arsenide cells that are for the most part only used in satellites and remote military communication sites as max efficiency is needed but the average home and power plant cell is made of nothing more than silicon and phosphorus which isn’t really toxic at all.

      2. John F. Opie

        It’s not protectionism: it’s allowing the US to use its comparative advantages with a vengeance. Energy-intensive manufacturing is coming back to the US (new steel manufacturing in Corpus Christi, TX, with an advanced direct reduction production complex with Voest-Alpin, one of the few successful steelmakers left in Europe (Austrian-based speciality steel maker). Chemical manufacturing is expanding as well, all bringing in solid white- and blue-collar jobs that the US has lost.

        Raise the cost of NG to world price levels simply enriches the companies holding export licenses. It artificially reduces the comparative advantage the US holds and shifts profits from manufacturing to NG export license holders. As a matter of industrial policy, exporting NG is pernicious: to benefit a few, you impoverish many. You also drive away foreign companies who are building in the US (largely chemical companies) to take advantage of these comparative advantages.

        Of course, given the recent track record of the US in industrial policy, this is apparently the new norm: it’s called crony capitalism. Your buddies in government let you know what they’re going to subsidize and after you make a “donation” you get in on the ground floor, suck up the subsidies, jack up the costs and go broke, laughing all the way to the bank and leaving the damages to the taxpayer.


        Oh, and to give an idea of the price advantages: NG in the US is, depending on the contract and date, roughly half of what it costs in Europe and one-quarter of what it costs in Japan. European manufacturers of, say, ethlynes, use naptha (raw gasoline without additives) as the raw material; US manufacturers use NG as the raw material and have close to a 60% cost advantage right now in terms of manufacturing costs. That makes US-made products unbeatable in terms of pricing and only the Chinese, with their political pricing policies, can compete on the basis of price (others can compete on timing and short-term large volume delivery, which are usually not price critical).

        Seriously, giving away a comparative advantage that benefits industrial workers in the US makes a mockery of industrial policy. It’s not protectionism in any way, case or form: before shale NG, export licenses were required and almost never granted, and only since shale NG have no less than 42 companies applied for export licenses. Better to keep the resource here, let US workers add value and profit here in the US, than export it at the lowest value-added step in the production chain so that workers and companies elsewhere make money, not Americans.

        Does that make me a protectionist? Pardon the vernacular, but f*ck no.

  6. Brooklin Bridge

    Obama seems to get genuine pleasure out of these sucker punches.

    Yes, we will insist on a strong Public Option. No, we won’t build the pipeline if there is any consequential harm to the environment. Yes, the check is in the mail and no that’s not my middle finger and yes it’s classified anyway so no you didn’t see it.

  7. villageidiot

    Bakken oil is shipped to Canada, ethane is extracted from the oil when refined, the ethane is then shipped to the Athabasca tar sands to be used to harvest the ‘oil’ from the tar sands.

    Looks like a dog chasing his tail.

    The Keystone Pipeline is there already, the Keystone XL’s function is to shorten the distance to Cushing, OK where the oil will be mixed with other oil and shipped for global consumption.

  8. Yancey Ward

    I think Obama would have approved the Keystone XL already, if he were going to do so. He can throw the environmental movement this bone because he knows the oil is going to be mined and burned anyway- if not here, then in Asia/Europe.

  9. Thor's Hammer

    We have to exploit the energy in those tar deposits so the Koch Brothers can sell it to the rest of the world so we can import crude oil to refine into gasoline to fuel our SUV’s to commute from our homes in the suburbs to our jobs in banking and finance in the city centers so the banks can finance growth in the energy sector so we can keep our air conditioners running when the temperature reaches 120 degrees.

    Are humans smarter than lemmings?

    1. Dave

      Interesting! What I would really like to know though, is this tar going through the pipeline any more environmentally dangerous than conventional oil? Seems to me that if the pipe broke any place but over a river, the mess would be much easier to clean. Just shovel it up?

      1. Thor's Hammer

        Look at it this way. If your wife is killed by a Drone strike as she was walking to the market or as she was preparing diner next door to a house where too many Pakistani males had gathered, is she any less dead?

        When we only focus on technicalities reality soon falls by the wayside.

    2. Dave

      This is interesting! Is this tar that is transported through the pipeline actually more hazardous than regular oil? It seems to me that if the line broke any place but over a river, the mess would actually be easier to clean. Just shovel it into trucks?

  10. ictus102

    Hey… when you shut down nuclear; close down coal… this is what you’re left with: the diriest of energy options.

    People are not going to cut back to primitive levels of poverty… at least no willingly. And it’s not possible to build affordable and reliable base-load capacity with solar and wind.

    This is your doing– Greenies– so stop complaining. Please.

    1. cenobite


      Solar insolation: 100,000TW. Human energy usage: 10TW. What part of that do you not understand?

      The problems with energy are primarily political ones. That is, who profits and collects rent, and who pays.

      It’s like the Greenland settlers who starved because they wouldn’t eat fish.

  11. Jardinero1

    The keystone pipeline will allow the life giving, society sustaining oil companies to remove even more of this horrible toxic sh!t from the ground. The newly cleaned soil will be returned to mother earth. The oil companies will turn the toxic sh!t into economy sustaining plastics as well as fuel which provides life giving heat in the winter and electricity year round.

    I don’t see any downside. The enviros would rather we leave the toxic sh!t in the ground, go back to all wood/hemp products and cellulose based plastics and fuel. This requires the destruction of beneficial forests and prairies. They would rather we get electricity from wind and solar, which requires the destruction of more forests and prairies. Sorry, I want the tar and bitumen from Canada, because I care about the environment not because I don’t care about the environment.

  12. Vern Rutter

    Well done Gaius.

    I’m a newish fan of your work at America Blog (regular reader since I ran across you here). Just finished your interviews with folks at NetRoots as well.

    This post nails the utter nonsense and tragedy of the tar sands. Hope it gets wide coverage. If the president can be shown to know this stuff and still approves, we truly are fucked.

    1. Gaius Publius

      Thanks, Vern. It makes a writer feel good to hear this. Glad you like what we’re doing.


  13. Robert Hurst

    Individuals should take more personal responsibility for their oil use. If you’re an ‘average American’ your level of oil consumption has dropped markedly since 2007, but it’s still at an obscene level compared to, say, the average Japanese citizen.

    I don’t notice any of the tar sands-Keystone pipeline activists calling for individuals to curtail their frivolous driving. No frivolous driving, no tar sands. Too bad we can’t go back in time and take back all those late night Taco Bell runs.

  14. Trisectangle

    Coke is high grade coal btw, not low grade. As well as the coke derived from petroleum coal is also processed into coke for many industrial uses.

    Since coke is almost pure carbon it burns very cleanly and with little smoke. The main reason why it was first developed in the UK was to remove the sulpurous smell you got when burning coal from certain sources. The fact that it’s almost pure carbon also makes it perfect as a reagent for various smelting processes as unrefined coal would introduce impurities into the metal.

  15. George P

    I love this website and I rarely post but this time I make an exception. I was hoping that a more balanced approach would have been taken with respect to the tar sands. For starters, having a video by a US representative whose past is one of a guerilla fighter, who clearly has a bias, is not my idea of a balanced approach.
    Is this biased essay about safe transportation of bitumen? Or, is it about those rich billionaires? Strange how a business site can be so anti billionaire.
    I would love to know what type of car our representative drives. What type of car does the writer drive? Care about the environment? Do any recycling? I can go on but the hypocrisy, propaganda, is not something I expected from this site.

  16. F. Beard

    What remains are deposits of nearly pure carbon, known as coke, which is essentially low-grade and very dirty coal that the plant burns as fuel to generate heat and electricity. [bold added]

    So carbon, the most irreplaceable element wrt Life is now dirty?! Coke is used for steel production because it is CLEAN, not dirty, unless of course one considers carbon itself to be dirty.

  17. giberrishh

    I’m with george p. This is an empty, ideological cross post. At least when you assail the institutions of Wall Street you consult economists and financiers. In this case, you link to a video bereft of science ( why do evil tar sands sink on the one hand, and as part of the refining process, float on the other?).
    As bad as tar sands are, what do you think is in crude oil, progenitor of all the ethylenes, teflons, ethanes, furanes, dioxins we’ve come to love/hate? You think Patagonia survival underwear and thinsulate is natural and canada born? For all the conspiracies people wish to concoct, the reality is this: fossil fuels offer the best energy to weight to price ratio available. That’s why we use them. The acme of alternative auto options, Tesla’s sedan runs an 900lb, $20k, 80kw battery; the stored power equivalent of less than three gallons of gas.
    I’m unimpressed by the arguments against tar sands, which seem more to be an attack on consumption than a debate over the sands themselves. And while i am more than willing to enter that discussion, I don’t take kindly to privileged snots advocating less for all, when what they really mean is less for the less fortunate. All too often I see Prius drivers (fourth car) on their sanctimonious ways, living in their a/c’ed mansions, flying hither and yon, feeling their carbon footprint has been inoculated by their rides.

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