As a retired EPA employee, and one who spent the first 23 years of that career in marine toxicology, I feel it is necessary to communicate my experience relevant to the present national political debate issue of the Keystone pipeline.
First, you should know that part of my marine research was on the toxicity of global crude oils and dispersants to various species of marine life. In the early seventies, my lab was filed with flasks of crude oils from all over the world. The sour crudes from Texas, Louisiana, and most of the coastal Gulf of Mexico as well as Alaska are black, highly viscous and filled with sulfur, toxic heavy metals and highly volatile, toxic, explosive hydrocarbons (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons[PAH]). The light sweet crudes from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran are clear liquids in various shades of light amber much like single malt scotch. You had to sniff the necks of these flasks directly to detect their odor.
The costs of refining (called cracking) the sour crudes are enormous, in the energy required of the process, the cost to public health from the atmospheric pollution, and the expense of disposal of the extracted toxic components like sulfur and heavy metals. Refining the sweet crudes is simple and far less onerous on the atmosphere and waste stream. Economic analysis continues to pronounce the importation and US refining of Arabian oils as a bargain no matter what we pay for them compared to the costs of refining our own sour crudes. Oil is a fungible commodity, thus, we sell most of our Alaskan sour crude oil to Japan and other Asian countries and import Arabian for our own use. If this weren’t cost effective, industry would not do it.
The recent Gulf oil spill of the Deep Water Horizon rig was light sweet crude. That’s why the damage was minimal for the volume spilled. There is an enormous dome of oil and gas at that site. The oil being pumped in the Dakotas now is sweet crude. And Anadarko Petroleum has just announced a major find in Colorado oil shale of light sweet oil bigger than the Saudi reserves. They will establish 250 new wells there next year. As we move to less polluting, less carbon contributing fuels, we will need this light sweet crude to help our environment, while the nation converts.
Alberta/Calgary oil sands are perhaps the worst of the global sour crudes. I met a pilot at an Apeiron Environmental Fair a few years ago who said the cracking tower in Calgary produces a 35,000 foot aerial plume, that if a plane even enters in the periphery would explode on contact. That’s how many explosive hydrocarbons are still in the exhaust of this refinery. PAHs are potent atmospheric pollutants and are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic. Google “refinery explosions in Canada,” and you will find their refineries have had several explosive accidents and serious fires, one of which almost killed an entire suburb of Calgary with a hydrogen sulfide gas cloud miles wide. Canada would love to rid their country of this refinery danger and still profit from the sale of its nasty oil.
Part of the Keystone pipeline proposed is an old one the U.S. used to deliver refined oil north from the Gulf. Now they propose to join it to Canada and reverse its flow southward. In order to move oil sands crude oil in the pipe, it will have to be heated, diluted with other solvents to prevent clogging and pressurized. The pipeline is proposed to be built over important farm lands and sole source aquifers in the Midwest. The state of Nebraska has issued strong opposition to its crossing fragile areas in its borders. In my opinion, this pipeline is multiple disasters waiting to happen. The pro-oil argument is that the Gulf coast refineries have the equipment to handle the sour crudes. The environmental argument is that we should move those refineries to light, sweet crude, which we are now pumping in the US, while we slowly convert to non-carbon energy production.
We don’t need the Canadian oil or its problems. So don’t be fooled by the claims of cheap oil and jobs. These arguments are as dark and ominous as the oil itself!
Retired EPA-Atlantic Ecology Division