All Things Considered?

NPR dives into the Keystone XL debate, only to tell less than half the story

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That is the response (as of Aug. 21), captured through social media, to National Public Radio’s (NPR) latest “All Things Considered” piece about Keystone, Kalamazoo and oil sands crudes. That’s a fairly strong national response to an issue that, up until recently, has been largely a regional one.

But it’s a particularly disturbing level of response when you look at all the things that were not considered in such a prominent story about the transportation of oil sands crudes.

Beginning with a blatantly misleading title clearly intended to maximize the fear factor regarding oil sands development, the piece goes on to tell a lopsided  human interest story while withholding the facts on … well, quite a lot:

NPR: “It is so thick, sticky and full of sand that companies have to shoot steam deep underground to liquefy it or scrape it out of sprawling surface mines.”

FACT: “Shooting steam in the ground” to loosen deposits of bitumen, a process known as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), is nothing to fear, despite the obvious implications of this statement. Instead, it’s one of many examples of the superior technological advancements that are coming from companies active in Alberta’s oil sands region. SAGD, an impressive technological feat in its own right, is already undergoing transformations, and to the benefit of the environment. Consider:

  • Laricina Energy is one of several oil sands companies exploring the use of solvents with SAGD, which could reduce the amount of steam necessary for extraction and accompanying greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent.
  • Enhanced Solvent Extraction Incorporating Electromagnetic Heating (ESEIEH) uses a combination of electricity and solvent instead of steam and has the potential to reduce energy use and GHG emissions by 40 percent.
  • Devon’s Jackfish project is the first oil sands operation to use 100 percent saline water to create steam, which takes the place of any drinkable water that you and I would rather use and can be recycled.

NPR: “These complex extraction techniques … produce a lot more greenhouse gases than conventional oil wells.”

FACT: According to IHS CERA, oil sands crude is only 6 percent more carbon intensive than conventional U.S. crude oils when considering lifecycle emissions (from extraction to combustion). And NPR forgets to mention that of the top five sources of imported oil to the U.S., Canada is the only country that currently has GHG regulations in place. In fact, regulations put into place in 2007 have thus far resulted in GHG reductions of 23 million tons – an equivalent of taking 4.8 million cars off the road.

NPR: “Many people are welcoming the jobs, money and friendly oil that will come with these pipelines.”

FACT: NPR devotes a mere sentence to explaining the benefits of oil sands development, so we picked up where they left off:

Many people are welcoming jobs? How about hundreds of thousands. The Canadian Energy Research Institute reports that U.S. employment from new oil sands development is expected to grow from 21,00 jobs in 2010 to 465,000 jobs in 2035.Put simply, for every two oil sands jobs created in Canada, one is created in the U.S.

They’re welcoming money too? Yes, to the tune of $563 trillion added to U.S. GDP by 2035.

What about this being friendly oil? According to a recent report by The New York Times, the U.S. has increased its imports of oil from Saudi Arabia by 20 percent this year, partially due to “insufficient pipeline connections between the United States and Canadian oil sands fields.” As Michael Makopvsky, a former Defense Department official from the George W. Bush administration, told the Times, “At a time when there is a rising chance of either a nuclear Iran or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, we should be trying to reduce our reliance on oil going through the Strait of Hormuz and not increasing it.”

NPR: “[I]n a document for the State Department, TransCanada predicted two spills every 10 years over the entire length of its Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Some scientists argue that the company underestimates that risk.”

FACT: In its draft environmental review, the State department also said the pipeline would “have a degree of safety over any other” and “limited adverse environmental impacts,” which is consistent with the Department of Transportation’s view that “pipelines … are practical and safe.”

NPR: “In July 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands oil burst in Marshall, Mich., inundating 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude.”

FACT: Yes, it’s true that Enbridge’s Line 6B was carrying crude from Alberta’s oil sands at the time of the Marshall incident. But what NPR fails to tell you is that the leak had nothing to do with the type of crude oil that was running through the pipe. The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal organization charged with determining the probable causes of the Marshall spill, found that the pipeline failed due to external – not internal – corrosion. Andy Black, President of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, reinforced this fact in an interview with E&E News when he explained how oil sands crude is not uniquely dangerous to pipeline integrity:

“ When you look at Department of Transportation pipeline accident records going back to 2002, when the accident records improved, not one oil pipeline carrying crude oil from the Canadian oil sands has had an internal corrosion caused failure.” (E&E TV, 7/19/12)

NPR: “…If there’s a spill, will they clean up all the oil?”

FACT: On June 21, nearly all of the Kalamazoo River was reopened for recreational use and final stages were completed just weeks after. Tracy Bronson of the Calhoun Conservation District said of the cleanup:

“When it comes to the wildlife along the river we have seen everything that we ever saw prior to the oil spill. Everything is back.”

NPR: “Scientists say they’re only beginning to study how tar sands behave after a spill, or even whether it might wear out a pipeline.”

FACT: The Marshall, Mich. incident gave rise to concerns over how oil sands crude may behave should a similar incident occur along the proposed Keystone XL line. But what is conveyed as the great unknown isn’t as foggy to scientists as it seems. In a recent article by the Washington Post, James Goecke, a hydrologist who has studied Nebraska’s Sand Hills region for more than 40 years, explained not only how spilled oil reacts differently depending on the geology of the land and water, but he also placated concerns that  a leak automatically threatens an entire water supply.

“Goecke says that many people have the wrong impression about the danger a pipeline leak would pose to the Ogallala. It’s not like dropping oil into a lake, he says; remember, the aquifer is more like a sponge. He said people ‘were concerned that any spill would contaminate and ruin the water in the entire aquifer, and that’s just practically impossible.’” (Washington Post, 8/6/12)

NPR: “’This is not a regular crude oil pipeline. This is something completely different. It’s not being treated differently.’”

FACT: We’ve said it time and again, but there continues to be reporting to the contrary: oil pipelines are designed to specifications necessary to handle whatever flows through it. Pipelines that transport heavy oils, a categorization that includes diluted bitumen, normally operate at higher pressure levels than is necessary for lighter crude oil, but such lines still must meet specifications required by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. As AOPL’s Andy Black explained to E&E News, “it’s just not logical” that a pipeline operator or a refiner would put into it an asset that it isn’t designed to handle.

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