oil sands

Sun, 2014-02-16 07:00Anne Landman
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Canadian Company Called U.S. Oil Sands Will Soon Start Extracting Utah's Tar Sands

Think only Canadians need to worry about tar sands extraction? Think again.

In October, U.S. Oil Sands, Inc. joined Kentucky-based Arrakis Oil Recovery as the second company to receive a permit to produce U.S. tar sands. The Utah Water Quality Board gave U.S. Oil Sands a permit to extract 2,000 barrels of oil per day from Utah's tar sands reserves. 

Despite its name, U.S. Oil Sands is actually a Canadian outfit based in Calgary, Alberta. The company currently holds leases on just over 32,000 acres in Utah's Uintah Basin. U.S. Oil Sands' mining will take place at PR Spring on the Colorado Plateau in an area called the Bookcliffs, which straddles the Utah/Colorado border.  

U.S. Oil Sands' water-and-energy-intensive extraction process involves first digging up congealed tar sands, then crushing them to reduce their size. The company then mixes the crushed sand with large amounts of hot water (at a temperature of 122-176°F) to loosen up and liquefy the tarry, oil-containing residue and separating it from the sand.

Next, coarse solids sink, are subsequently removed and considered waste tailings. Air is then bubbled through the remaining water-oil mixture, which makes the oil float to the top in what's referred to as “bitumen froth,” in industry lingo. The froth is then deaerated, meaning all the air molecules are removed.

When it finally gets to this point in the production process, the mixture is still so thick it can't be pumped through pipelines.

Thus, it undergoes even more treatment with a hydrocarbon solvent to reduce the viscosity and density of the sludge. Wastes from the process — which contain water contaminated with chemicals and unrecoverable oils — are called “middlings” and will be disposed of in surface tailings ponds and kept long-term.

Wed, 2014-02-05 10:00Steve Horn
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Keystone XL's Northern Leg: A Fracked Oil Pipeline Along with Tar Sands

On January 31, President Barack Obama's U.S. State Department released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the northern leg of TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The State Department's FEIS argues that the northern half of Keystone XL, if built, “remains unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands, or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States.”

But flying under the media's radar so far, the State Department review also highlights the prospect that Keystone XL will not only carry tar sands, but also be tapped to carry up to 100,000 barrels per day of oil extracted via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin.

“[Keystone XL] would have the capacity to deliver up to 830,000 bpd, of which 730,000 bpd of capacity has been set aside for [tar sands] and the remaining 100,000 bpd of capacity set aside for [Bakken] crude oil,” the report details.

“[TransCanada] has represented that it has firm commitments to transport approximately 555,000 bpd of [tar sands], as well as 65,000 bpd of crude oil from the Bakken.”

A smaller proposed project owned by TransCanada called the Bakken MarketLink pipeline and incorporated as Keystone Marketlink LLC in February 2011, would ship the fracked oil to Keystone XL's northern leg as an “on ramp.” 

“This project would include a 5-mile pipeline, pumps, meters, and storage tanks to supply Bakken crude oil to the proposed pipeline,” explains the FEIS.

Wed, 2014-01-22 11:53Steve Horn
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State Dept's Keystone XL Contractor, ERM Group, Also OK'd Controversial Pebble Mine in Alaska

A DeSmogBlog investigation has revealed Environmental Resources Management Inc. (ERM Group) — the contractor performing the U.S. State Department's environmental review for the northern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline — gave the greenlight to Alaska's controversial Pebble Mine proposal in June 2013.

The proposed Pebble Mine, located in Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, contains mineable gold and copper. It's also a major hub for fishing and the seafood industry, leading the Center for American Progress to call the battle over Pebble Mine a “resource war.”

“Bristol Bay…is home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery,” explains a November 2013 EarthWorks blog post. “The devastation caused by a massive open pit mine would linger in perpetuity affecting not just Bristol Bay, but the commercial fishing industry everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.”

Fri, 2013-12-20 09:45Steve Horn
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Dollarocracy: U.S. Congressmen Refuse to Address Keystone XL Southern Half Spill Concerns

What's the U.S. congressional response to the safety issues with the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline raised by Public Citizen's Texas office? Mostly what Simon & Garfunkel called “The Sound of Silence” in their famous song.

DeSmogBlog contacted more than three dozen members of the U.S. Congress representing both political parties to get their take on Public Citizen's alarming findings in its November investigation (including dents, metal that had to be patched up and pipeline segments labeled “junk”), but got little in the way of substantive responses.

Set to open for business on January 22approved via an Executive Order by President Barack Obama in March 2012 and rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the southern half of the pipeline has garnered far less media coverage than its U.S.-Canada border-crossing brother to the north, Keystone XL's northern half.

Over two dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Obama on December 12 expressing concern over the conflicts-of-interest in the U.S. State Department's environmental review process for the northern half of the line.

But none of them would comment on concerns with the southern half of the line raised in the Public Citizen report after multiple queries via e-mail from DeSmogBlog.

Wed, 2013-12-18 12:00Steve Horn
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Keystone XL Fork in the Road: TransCanada's Houston Lateral Pipeline

Only Barack Obama knows the fate of the northern half of TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  But in the meantime, TransCanada is preparing the southern half of the line to open for commercial operations on January 22.

And there's a fork in that half of the pipeline that's largely flown under the radar: TransCanada's Houston Lateral Pipeline, which serves as a literal fork in the road of the southern half of Keystone XL's route to Gulf Coast refineries.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline” by TransCanada, the 485-mile southern half of Keystone XL brings a blend of Alberta's tar sands crude, along with oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas. This area has been coined a “sacrifice zone” by investigative journalist Ted Genoways, describing the impacts on local communities as the tar sands crude is refined mainly for export markets.

But not all tar sands and fracked oil roads lead to Port Arthur. That's where the Houston Lateral comes into play. A pipeline oriented westward from Liberty County, TX rather than eastward to Port Arthur, Houston Lateral ushers crude oil to Houston's refinery row

“The 48-mile (77-kilometre) Houston Lateral Project is an additional project under development to transport oil to refineries in the Houston, TX marketplace,” TransCanada's website explains. “Upon completion, the Gulf Coast Project and the Houston Lateral Project will become an integrated component of the Keystone Pipeline System.”

Thu, 2013-12-12 14:45Steve Horn
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Federal Pipeline Safety Agency Approves Startup of Keystone XL Southern Half

DeSmogBlog has learned that TransCanada cleared the final hurdle for the southern half of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, receiving a green light last week from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) following a review of several safety concerns.

TransCanada announced this week that it has begun injecting oil into the southern half of its Keystone XL pipeline in preparation for commercial operations.  

Leading up to PHMSA giving Keystone XL south the go-ahead to start up, Public Citizen raised several questions about the safety of the pipeline. 

Will TransCanada respond to greivances raised about dents, faulty welding, pipeline material designated “junk” and other issues raised in the consumer advocacy group's November investigation? And what about September 10 and September 26 warning letters obtained by Public Citizen raising similar concerns from PHMSA to TransCanada?

Both TransCanada and PHMSA have provided DeSmogBlog answers to these questions.

Rebranded the “Gulf Coast Pipeline Project” by TransCanada, the 485-mile Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas Keystone XL southern half — approved via a March 2012 Executive Order from President Barack Obama — is set to open for business by mid- to late-January.

Tue, 2013-12-10 12:01Steve Horn
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TransCanada Begins Injecting Oil Into Keystone XL Southern Half; Exact Start Date A Mystery

Keystone XL's southern half is one step closer to opening for business. TransCanada announced that “on Saturday, December 7, 2013, the company began to inject oil into the Gulf Coast Project pipeline as it moves closer to the start of commercial service.”

The Sierra Club's legal challenge to stop the pipeline was recently denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, so the southern half, battled over for years between the industry and environmentalists, will soon become a reality.

According to a statement provided to DeSmog by TransCanada, “Over the coming weeks, TransCanada will inject about three million of [sic] barrels of oil into the system, beginning in Cushing, Oklahoma and moving down to the company’s facilities in the Houston refining area.”

In mid-January, up to 700,000 barrels per day of Alberta's tar sands diluted bitumen (dilbit) could begin flowing through the 485-mile southern half of TransCanada's pipeline, known as the Gulf Coast Project. Running from Cushing, Oklahoma to Port Arthur, Texas, the southern half of the pipeline was approved by both a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit 12 and an Executive Order from President Barack Obama in March 2012.

BloombergThe Canadian Press and The Oklahoman each reported that the Gulf Coast Project pipeline is now being injected with oil. Line fill is the last key step before a pipeline can begin operations. 

“There are many moving parts to this process – completion of construction, testing, regulatory approvals, line fill and then the transition to operations,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told DeSmog. “Line fill has to take place first, then once final testing and certifications are completed, the line can then go into commercial service.”

Residents living along the length of the southern half will have no clue about the rest of the start-up process, as TransCanada says it won't provide any more information until the line is already running. “For commercial and contractual reasons, the next update we will provide will be after the line has gone into commercial service,” the company announced.

When DeSmog asked whether the company is currently injecting conventional oil or diluted bitumen sourced from the Canadian tar sands, TransCanada's Howard replied: 

“Many people like to try and categorize the blend, etc., however we are injecting oil into the pipeline. As you’ve likely seen me quoted before, oil is oil and this pipeline is designed to handle both light and heavy blends of oil, in accordance with all U.S. regulatory standards.

I am not able to provide you the specific blend or breakdown as we are not permitted (by our customers) from disclosing that information to the media. There are very strict confidentiality clauses in the commercial contracts we enter into with our customers, and that precludes us from providing that. The reason is that if we are providing information about a specific blend, when it is in our system, etc. – that has the potential to identify who our customers may be or allow others to take financial positions in the market and profit from that information when others do not have access to the same information. This has much farther reaching impacts for the financial markets (and ultimately all of us).”

Mon, 2013-12-02 10:25Steve Horn
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Tar Sands' Next Frontier: Shipments on the Great Lakes

Great Lakes Tar Sands

The Great Lakes, drinking water source for over 40 million North Americans, could be the next target on tar sands marketers' bullseye according to a major new report out by the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.

The 24-page report, “Oil and Water: Tar Sands Crude Shipping Meets the Great Lakes?unpacks a new looming threat to the Great Lakes in the form of barges transporting tar sands along the Great Lakes to targeted midwestern refinery markets. As the report suggests, it's a threat made worse by an accompanying “Wild West”-like regulatory framework.

“The prospect of tar sands shipping on the Great Lakes gives rise to fundamental social and economic questions about whether moving crude oil by vessel across the world’s single largest surface freshwater system is a venture this region wants to embrace, despite the known risks,” the report says early on.

Calumet Specialty Products Partners LP is one of the major corporations hedging its bets on moving tar sands along the Great Lakes — and oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from North Dakota's Bakken Shale basin — and may begin doing so as early as 2015.   

“[I]ndustry observers and consultants speculate this crude could travel from Wisconsin across Lake Superior to Lake Michigan, and on to refineries in Whiting, Ind., Lemont, Ill., and possibly Detroit, Mich. near Lake Erie,” the report details. “Other potential destinations include Sarnia, Ontario on Lake Huron, or even an East Coast refinery.”

As a recent GasBuddy.com article explained, BP's Whiting, Indiana refinery - capable of refining far more tar sands crude with its Modernization Project - will soon open for business.

“Sources say that BP's modernization of the company's 405,000-b/d Whiting, Ind., refinery is on schedule with all units now operating,” the article explained. “That includes a brand new 105,000-b/d coker that will eventually allow the plant to use about four times as much heavy sour Canadian crude compared with it had used previously.”

Tue, 2013-11-26 15:31Steve Horn
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Obama Approves Major Border-Crossing Fracked Gas Pipeline Used to Dilute Tar Sands

Although TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline has received the lion's share of media attention, another key border-crossing pipeline benefitting tar sands producers was approved on November 19 by the U.S. State Department.

Enter Cochin, Kinder Morgan's 1,900-mile proposed pipeline to transport gas produced via the controversial hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of the Eagle Ford Shale basin in Texas north through Kankakee, Illinois, and eventually into Alberta, Canada, the home of the tar sands. 

Like Keystone XL, the pipeline proposal requires U.S. State Department approval because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border. Unlike Keystone XL - which would carry diluted tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) south to the Gulf Coast - Kinder Morgan's Cochin pipeline would carry the gas condensate (diluent) used to dilute the bitumen north to the tar sands.

“The decision allows Kinder Morgan Cochin LLC to proceed with a $260 million plan to reverse and expand an existing pipeline to carry an initial 95,000 barrels a day of condensate,” the Financial Post wrote

“The extra-thick oil is typically cut with 30% condensate so it can move in pipelines. By 2035, producers could require 893,000 barrels a day of the ultra-light oil, with imports making up 786,000 barrels of the total.”

Increased demand for diluent among Alberta's tar sands producers has created a growing market for U.S. producers of natural gas liquids, particularly for fracked gas producers.

“Total US natural gasoline exports reached a record volume of 179,000 barrels per day in February as Canada's thirst for oil sand diluent ramped up,” explained a May 2013 article appearing in Platts. ”US natural gasoline production is forecast to increase to roughly 450,000 b/d by 2020.”

Fri, 2013-11-22 12:37Steve Horn
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US Court Denies Halt on Pipeline Set to Replace Keystone XL Northern Half

Flanagan south, keystone xl pipeline

The ever-wise Yogi Berra once quipped “It's like déjà vu all over again,” a truism applicable to a recent huge decision handed down by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. 

A story covered only by McClatchy News' Michael Doyle, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson shot down Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) request for an immediate injunction in constructing Enbridge's Flanagan South tar sands pipeline in a 60-page ruling.

That 600-mile long, 600,000 barrels per day proposed line runs from Flanagan, Illinois - located in the north central part of the state - down to Cushing, Oklahoma, dubbed the “pipeline crossroads of the world.” The proposed 694-mile, 700,000 barrels per day proposed Transcanada Keystone XL northern half also runs to Cushing from Alberta, Canada and requires U.S. State Department approval, along with President Barack Obama's approval. 

Because Flanagan South is not a border-crossing line, it doesn't require the State Department or Obama's approval. If Keystone XL's northern half's permit is denied, Flanagan South - along with Enbridge's proposal to expand its Alberta Clipper pipeline, approved by Obama's State Department during Congress' recess in August 2009 - would make up that half of the pipeline's capacity and then some. 

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