NEWPORT, VT- The issues of energy production and independence were among several hot topics during the just concluded election cycle, with President Barack Obama and challenger Governor Mitt Romney debating the need for Canadian tar-sands oil and the proposed pipeline called Keystone XL.
Tar-sands oil is not just relegated to states far away, however. An existing pipeline, which runs through the heart of the Northeast Kingdom, may host the highly corrosive crude, carrying it over several watersheds and through the ecologically sensitive Victory Bog.
With crude oil production increasing through new technologies to extract oil from sand, and through hydrological fracking techniques, the oil industry is building new pipelines to connect Canadian oil fields to the coast where refineries are located. Two new pipelines have been constructed in recent years and, with a third pipeline already in existence, are transporting 800,000 barrels of crude oil daily from Alberta, Canada, to Texas.
With oil production in Alberta expected to double over the next eight years, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline will be used to move an additional 900,000 barrels of crude oil a day, more than doubling the amount of the existing pipelines.
As a result, Trans Canada and other oil companies including Exxon-Mobil and Shell are considering alternative pipeline routes to connect the oil sands fields in Alberta to seaports where the oil can be refined. One choice under consideration is to take the pipeline that transports crude oil from Portland, Maine, and traverses through New Hampshire and the Northeast Kingdom to Montreal, Canada, and reverse the flow (the Portland/Montreal pipeline and the Enbridge Line 9 in Canada).
Environmentalists have raised several concerns about this plan as the pipeline is 62 years old and tar sand “bitumen” is more corrosive and abrasive than other sources of crude oil.
The aging infrastructure increases the risk of oil spills because the tar sand oil corrodes the piping from the inside out, making it difficult to monitor. Industry research reveals there are 16 times more spills in pipelines transporting tar sand oil than for other types of crude oil.
The extraction of oil sands is also controversial as approximately one-half of Canada's oil sands are dredged up, similar to strip mining coal. Trees are cut, layers of wet land fen and peat are drained and peeled back. Then the bitumen is extracted, down 400 feet and sometimes deeper.
To get the oil to the surface on deeper digs, water is pumped in, breaking up the bitumen, with the heavy soils settling on the bottom, the water in the middle layer, and the oil rising to the top. It is a very intensive process in which energy is expended equal to one barrel of oil to extract 4-8 barrels of crude.
The boom in oil extraction throughout North America has led the industry to expect within a few years that the United States will be the largest producer of oil in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia. While the increased production has been touted as a way toward energy independence, the crude oil that will be transported to the Gulf Coast of Texas as well as Portland, Maine, will be refined and shipped oversees, bypassing the U.S. market.