What is tar sands oil?

Tar sands oil is an unconventional form of crude oil, made from bitumen, that is thicker, stickier, and heavier than conventional crude oil. The Government of Alberta Department of Energy defines bitumen as “a thick, sticky form of crude oil that is so heavy and viscous that it will not flow unless it is heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons.”  These characteristics make tar sands oil more difficult to extract, transfer, and refine than conventional crude oil.  Tar sands oil is therefore more harmful to the environment and human health than conventional crude oil.

After bitumen is extracted from the ground in regions called “oil sands” or “tar sands,” it must be treated and converted into synthetic crude oil or diluted bitumen, aka “dilbit.”  This synthetic crude oil or diluted bitumen is commonly known as “tar sands oil.”  

Where does bitumen (the source of tar sands oil) come from?

The tar sands oil that would be carried across the North American continent by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would come from oil sands regions in Alberta, Canada.  The surface of this land is forest land used by indigenous people to provide sustenance and life since time immemorial.  The People share this land with the caribou, which are still relied on as a means of human subsistence.  Human life, health, culture, and caribou are among the earth’s many natural blessings that are being damaged or threatened by the extraction of bitumen.

How is the bitumen removed from the ground?

There are two way to remove bitumen from the earth.  The first way is by strip mining tar sand from vast open pits.  Rather than extracting bitumen by itself, this method actually extracts tar sand, which is a natural mixture of bitumen, sand, clay, and water.  Strip mining can only be used in about 20% of the oil sands reserves because the remaining 80% of the reserves are too deep for mining.  

For the remaining 80% of the oil sands, oil companies use a process called “in situ” to extract the bitumen from more than 75 meters below the earth’s surface.  In situ operations involve 'deforesting' sections of boreal forest, stripping away the layers of earth between the vegetation and the oil sands, and using significant amounts of natural gas to inject steam into the well to heat the bitumen so that it is separated out of the oil sand and can be pumped out of the ground.

How is the bitumen actually turned into tar sands oil?

Once the bitumen is extracted, it has to go through a preliminary refining process to turn it into a substance that can actually flow through a pipeline.  There are two different preliminary refining processes that are used, depending on whether the bitumen was extracted through strip mining or in the situ process.  If the bitumen was removed by strip mining, the preliminary refining process includes separating the bitumen from the other materials in the oil sand.  This leaves behind large amounts wastewater, byproducts, and “tailings” that are dumped in toxic “tailings ponds.”  These tailings ponds are known to leak significant amounts of toxic chemicals and other contaminants into the groundwater.

The preliminary refining stage is different from the refining process to turn the tar sands oil into a useable petroleum product, which happens after the tar sands oil is transported long distances to a different refinery.  The oil industry refers to the preliminary process as “upgrading,” an apparent disguise for the fact that they actually have to go through two different refining processes at two different refineries before the bitumen product is usable by a consumer.  

This need for two different refineries is why TransCanada wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline.  Once the bitumen from the oil sands has been “upgraded” at a refinery in Alberta, the heavy, toxic tar sands oil would be transported all the way down to Texas, through a massive pipeline, where it would be treated once again at a second refinery near the Gulf Coast.

Are tar sands oil pipeline safe?  Do they ever leak?

Tar sands oil pipelines are definitely not safe, they spill all the time.  In fact, the Keystone I pipeline  spilled 14 times in just a 12-month period!  Because Keystone I is owned by the same company that wants to build Keystone XL, and because Keystone I carries the same product that Keystone XL would carry, a look at Keystone I provides a good indication of what to expect from Keystone XL.  For information about Keystone I’s “safety” record, CLICK HERE.

Why the hype about tar sands oil, anyway?