Few energy resources stir passions like Canada's oil sands.
The vast, gooey mixture of clay, sand, water and, most notably, bitumen -- a hydrocarbon paste that, with a fair amount of work, can be separated from the granular stuff and eventually refined into a variety of petroleum products -- has the potential to produce upwards of a trillion barrels of oil, by some estimates.
Accomplishing that, however, is a profoundly expensive, dirty and energy-intensive affair. Huge inputs of natural gas, for example, are needed to separate and process the bitumen, and according to one study by RAND, production from oil sands generates perhaps 30 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional oil extraction.
As my colleague Ian Austen noted for The New York Times this year, the process amounts to the most capital-intensive method for extracting oil. "Each of the tires on the cartoonishly oversize dump trucks used in oil sands mining," he noted, "costs about $60,000."
The question in the United States, then, is how to weigh the disadvantages against the very real benefit of securing access to a substantial -- and friendly -- source of foreign oil for decades to come.
Among those giving more weight to the benefits: the U.S. State Department, which issued final approval late last month for the construction of a new pipeline aimed at widening the United States' tap on Canadian tar sands. Last week, a coalition of environmental groups, invoking the downsides of oil sands production, called the State Department's review of the pipeline project slipshod and filed a lawsuit to block it.
In its decision, the State Department, citing numbers from the Energy Information Administration, estimated that the "balance between domestic supply and demand" will require imports of unconventional oil from Canada to grow from current levels of roughly 1.5 million barrels a day to some 4.3 million barrels by 2030.
The pipeline project, the State Department asserted, "would serve the national interest, in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil producing regions and countries, by providing additional access to a proximate, stable, secure supply of crude oil."
As for the added intensity of greenhouse gas emissions associated with tar sands development, the State Department decision stated, "The administration has considered these concerns and considers that on balance they do not outweigh the benefits to the national interests identified above."
Sarah Burt, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a California-based law firm spearheading the suit, which targets the State Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that one of the goals was to "provide some space for decision makers to consider some of the central issues these pipeline projects raise."
Not least among those, Ms. Burt said, was whether the new supply line -- dubbed the Alberta Clipper Project by its builder, Enbridge Energy Partners of Houston -- unnecessarily expands the already voracious U.S. appetite for fossil fuels even as the nation is on the hunt for alternatives.
In its attempt to focus attention on that larger question, the lawsuit, in which Earthjustice is joined by a variety of state and national environmental groups, takes aim at smaller game, including what it sees as holes in the decision-making process.
According to the suit, for example, the State Department, failed properly to review expansion of an auxiliary pipeline that would carry a substance to Alberta to dilute the viscous oil-sands product so that it can flow back down through the Alberta Clipper line. Earthjustice claims that this diluent pipeline should have been wholly examined as part of the larger environmental impact assessment required for permitting the Clipper.
The group also argues that the State Department overlooked a variety of "indirect and cumulative" effects of the new pipeline, the U.S. portion of which will run more than 300 miles, or 480 kilometers, from the Canadian border just west of Minnesota, across the north of that state, to the western tip of Lake Superior near Duluth. Among those effects are environmental and climatic ones resulting from the inevitable expansion of bitumen refining facilities in the United States.
And, of course, there are the effects on forest and wetland associated with construction of a new pipeline, and the potential for harm to the "health, recreational, economic, aesthetic and cultural interests" of American Indian tribes on whose land portions of the pipeline will run.
The State Department did not return calls for comment, but Denise Hamsher, a spokeswoman for Enbridge (which is not named in lawsuit), more than once summed up the company's opinion of the litany of charges made by Earthjustice this way: "Nonsense."
The pipeline and the U.S. government permit, Ms. Hamsher noted, did not come about overnight, but after years of deliberation, public comments and the acquisition of dozens of accompanying state and tribal permits. The U.S. environmental impact statement, she pointed out, is nearly 4,000 pages long -- and it includes, Ms. Hamsher said, an analysis of both the Clipper line and the accompanying diluent line.
The project, too, runs along an existing pipeline corridor, Ms. Hamsher said, and isn't cutting through virgin territory -- though she conceded that a new pipeline might expand that the width of that corridor as much as 100 feet, or 30 meters.
Even here, Ms. Hamsher argued, the footprint would be minimal, and the company is required to perform reclamation measures to compensate for its effect on surrounding land.
As for American Indians on affected lands, Ms. Hamsher said Enbridge had the tribal leaders' blessing.
Indeed, Frank Bibeau, legal director for the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, suggested in a phone call that he and other tribal leaders viewed the pipeline as a boon to the tribe -- and the country -- despite a petition drive among some tribal members seeking a referendum on the project.
According to Mr. Bibeau, the Leech Lake Band is receiving $10 million from Enbridge as part of the deal. "That $10 million is very important for jobs and tribal members and the whole Northern Minnesota area," Mr. Bibeau said, "which is economically depressed."
"My belief as a citizen of the U.S. is if we were able to completely stop the new pipelines," he added, "I believe that the Chinese and Japanese will just build pipelines to the Pacific Coast, and they'll take the crude."
Whatever the merits of either side of the pipeline debate -- and the larger one over Alberta's oil sands -- that possibility may already be under way. Just last week, PetroChina, a Chinese state- owned oil company, agreed to pay $1.7 billion for a majority stake in two tar sands projects.
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