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Joe Nocera Wades Into A Tar Sands Debate He Doesn't Understand


by: Adam Schwitters

Tue Feb 07, 2012 at 02:53 PM CST


While the US Senate is debating a bill that would revive the moribund Keystone XL pipeline while limiting legal challenges to the route, Joe Nocera of the New York Times published an ill considered OpEd today that shows he understands neither the risks nor the economics of tar sands oil.

Nocera makes at least four completely false assertions in his piece.

  • The first, which makes  up the bulk of the essay, is that the Obama administration’s rejection of Keystone is driving the Canadian government into the arms of the Chinese and thereby endangering US energy security.  Keystone was always aimed at the Chinese market.  As a result of increased efficiency and the global downturn, US oil consumption has steadily dropped since 2005 (from about 20.5 million barrels per day to 19 million bbd in 2010).  China’s demand, on the other hand, rose from about 6.5 million bbd to over 9 million bbd during the same period.  Source: CIA Factbook.  Over this same period, Port Arthur, Texas (the proposed endpoint of Keystone XL) undertook “the largest US refinery expansion to occur in 30 years” with major additions to Motiva and Valero refineries.  That expanded refining capacity and easy access to the Panama Canal made Port Arthur the easiest and cheapest route for tar sands oil to reach the Chinese market.  Tar sands oil has been in the US market for years it just never had an easy path to overseas markets.  A recent Cornell University study on Keystone’s economic impact predicted that were the pipeline built, midwest gasoline prices would likely rise 10-20 cents per gallon.  Also, though Joe asserts that Canada has a “newfound willingness to to business with China,” the Canadian logging industry has never had an issue with selling lumber to China.

  • The second, is that tar sands oil would allow the US “to become, if not energy self-sufficient, at least energy secure, no longer beholden to OPEC.”  Not only is all that Canadian oil not bound for US markets, it will not endanger price points set by, in Joe’s words, “countries that don’t like us.” Countries like Saudi Arabia which possesses the world’s largest oil reserves and which recently indicated that it would keep global oil prices “around $100 per barrel” regardless of new supplies (tar sands) or supply instability (Iran).  $100 per barrel is, conveniently, about the lowest price for tar sands oil to be economically viable, as the cost in extracting and transporting the sticky, nearly solid substance is substantially higher than traditional crude oil.

  • Nocera’s third false premise is that tar sands oil is just ” a little dirtier than the crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert, but is hardly the environmental disaster many suppose.”  Tar sands oil is a lot dirtier than Saudi crude.  It contains 10 times more sulfur and is 3 times more acidic than traditional crudes.  When piped, it is subject to 3 times more pressure than crude oil, and contains a 3 times greater flow of abrasive quartz and silica than a commercial grade sandblaster.  There already has been a major tar sands oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the increased size and flow of the Keystone XL pipe would raise the risks of another, bigger, spill considerably.  Also, just last week, Canadian officials announced a plan to start poisoning wolves in northern Alberta in an attempt to stave off the collapse of caribou herds which have been affected by massive habitat loss due to tar sands mining that destroys huge tracts of forest to get at the sticky substance underneath. If the massive deployment of strychnine is not an admission of an environmental catastrophe, what is?  See it for yourself.  This is what a tar sands strip mine looks like from space.  This is a whole lot different from the “crude that pours forth from the Saudi Arabian desert.”

  • Nocera’s final wrong assumption is that if Keystone XL isn’t built, Canada will, with a sweep of its imperial hand, find its own “diverse buyers so it won’t be held hostage by American politics.”  To do this, Canada would need an oil exporting terminal along with a pipeline bringing oil to it from Alberta.  This has not proved easy for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration.  Enbridge, a major player in Albertan oil, has proposed the Northern Gateway pipeline which would terminate in Kitimat along the pristine northwest coast of British Columbia.  British Columbians, blessed as they are with natural beauty and clean waters, are not pleased with this plan and have been staging large protests ever since Northern Gateway was first proposed.

Joe Nocera should stick to issues he understands, apologia for Canadian oil profiteering is beneath him.

Contact your senators here to let them know that a revived Keystone pipeline is unacceptable.  We have enough oil in this country, and it is dirty enough as it is thank you very much.

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Don't see (3.00 / 1)
anything in Mr. Nocera's bio that truly qualifies him to write about this. Sad to see any journalist write such a glowing endorsement without some kind of disclaimer. Good job of pointing that out. And great job on the research. The respected journalists who don't mind helping out Oil and Gas in a big way do themselves so much harm with stuff like this. Thanks.

Nocera as columnist (0.00 / 0)
He's been very hit-and-miss, overall. He's been OK but no better on the banksters/mortgage fraud.

There is no god and I am his prophet - SocraticGadfly

Actually... (3.00 / 1)
calling this oil is being charitable. It's basically asphalt and, as I pointed out recently to an uninformed Republican, you have to do a lot to make asphalt flow through a pipe at high speed.

Refining this creates two problems for us.

1) It needs WATER. Lots and lots of WATER. And we're in what looks like a long term change to a more arid climate even in SE Texas.

2) What do you do with the tailings? Type 'Alberta' and 'Tailings' into a google image search. That's a fraction of what we'll have to deal with here since we'll also have to dispose of all the additives you have to use to make asphalt liquid.

The Canadians get an instant bump of at least $10/bbl over what they're getting now. The refiners get a source of cheap heavy oil not unlike the Orinoco heavy they've been cooking for years in a state with a corrupt political system and a compliant environmental agency. The rest of the world gets a new supply of RBOB.

But it does fuckall to lower prices here or there.  


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