Why Scientists Are in Alarm Mode Over the Keystone XL Pipeline

News & Politics

Why are scientists in alarm mode over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile long conduit that would transport a chemical-laden synthetic oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas? Scientists across specialized fields have joined forces to make public statements, penned a formal letter to President Obama, and have even committed acts of civil disobedience in front of the White House during the national Tar Sands Action.

What do they know that we don’t?

I sought out these questions, traveling to the furthest southern extent of Cape Cod to the township of Woods Hole; a place of world renown for its oceanic studies and a hub of scientific exploration since the late 1800s. I had come to meet with one of the signatories of the Obama letter, ecologist George M. Woodwell, at the Woods Hole Research Center.

While awaiting his arrival, I walked around the facility and its grounds. WHRC, also a campus, is ensconced in eight acres of oxygen-rich forest where burnt and downed tree trunks are left alone to decompose. The carpet of detritus underfoot was so dense and varied its components were indecipherable to the naked eye. The outdoor laboratory is a sliver of what they do on a global scale: WHRC is a preeminent collector of data on forests. They track and record the health of forests worldwide in tandem with cooperators in the Amazon, the Arctic, Africa, Russia, Alaska, Canada, New England, and the Mid-Atlantic.

Taiga Biome

Once the interview was underway, Woodwell, founder and director emeritus of WHRC, did not mince words about the Keystone XL project: “The tar sands is a complete scandal; it’s totally for profit—for Canadian profit, political profit, financial profit—and not for the public good because the oil poisons the world, and the methods of getting it poisons the world in more ways than anybody is admitting.”

Woodwell believes the role of government is to protect the public welfare, and that includes protection of the environment. For those who argue for less oversight, he presented an inventory of what a loosely regulated business world has produced in the past: slavery, the effluence of smelters that killed people and vegetation, silicosis in miners, and chemical and radiation poisoning of workers. For an example of a country in ecological collapse, he pointed to Haiti. “They don’t have a functioning environment, economy, or government. All must stand together. Take one away, or make one fail, and the others fail.”

He has been accused on more than one occasion of being political. Woodwell conducted the groundbreaking research on DDT that formed the basis for its eventual nationwide ban in 1972. He has a very short answer why such accusations exist: “Environmental science gets politicized because it has economic implications.”

Woodwell, who prefers the term “climate disruption” to climate change, is clear on what must be done to stabilize the already teetering-on-the-edge biosphere. The use of fossil fuels must be reduced and “we have to stop deforestation, all of it, all over the world because the carbon pool in the vegetation of the earth is connected to forests.”

The carbon storage capacity of forests is approximately three times as large as the pool of carbon in the atmosphere. If forests are changed, reduced, or eliminated, the pool, or captured carbon, goes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2). According to Woodwell, the carbon release from deforestation accounts for “25 to 30 percent of the four to five billion tons of carbon accumulating a year in the atmosphere from the total of all human activities.”

Listening to Woodwell explain the role of the tundra and forests in carbon sequestration, it became evident where his years of scientific research and the Keystone XL pipeline intersect. The tar sands are largely mined in northeastern Alberta in an area classified as boreal forest.

The boreal forest, or taiga, is the largest forest in the world. It is a circumpolar biomea community of related plant and animal species fostered by a similar climateoccurring at high-altitudes across Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, and Russia. The boreal forest exists on 14.5 percent of the earth’s surface, but contains over 30 percent of the earth’s terrestrial carbon. The forest in its natural state is considered a sink: a repository for carbon. If disrupted, it becomes a source, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere.

Mining the Tar Sands

Techniques used to extract the tar sands are more akin to mining than drilling, both in the methods employed and amount of land destruction necessary for the removal of a tarry, viscous hydrocarbon called bitumen. Two techniques are used: in situ recovery and surface mining.

In situ recovery begins with drilling wells into bitumen deposits then injecting steam into the reservoir. The steam reduces viscosity and enables the bitumen to be pumped to the surface.

Surface mining, also referred to as strip mining, entails clearing large swaths of land. The forest is first cut down, followed by the removal of carbon-rich peat (the peat is put in storage for later usage in required remediation efforts). The bitumen and surrounding soils are then gouged out by heavy equipment. The usable hydrocarbon is separated on site using a caustic hot-water process, with the resultant wastewater sent to facilities for processing. The water is eventually stored in outdoor tailing ponds.

The tailing ponds, collectively covering more than 19 square miles, contain fine particulate matter and toxic chemicals (naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). These open ponds, also a part of required reclamation, allow fine particles to settle. The estimated time for settlement varies from several decades to 150 years.

The total amount of energy used in tar sands extraction and production results in greater amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than from conventional sources of oil. The amount of increased emissions remains an issue of concern and calculation, though not all studies are equal.

The Department of Energy’s National Environmental Technology Lab estimated the GHG emissions of tar sands production to be “approximately 17 percent higher than gasoline from the 2005 average mix of crude oil consumed in the U.S.,” while a study conducted by TIAX, LLC, found emissions “only 2 percent higher when compared to gasoline from Venezuelan heavy crude.”

That’s a difference of 15 percent, though both reports used a “well-to-wheels” calculation. A well-to-wheels calculation factors in GHG emissions from extraction, processing, distribution, and combustion. But what about the additional emissions as a result of deforestation and the destabilization of associated soilswhat scientists refer to as “land-use change”?

From Sink to Source

To some degree, this question is addressed in a paper by Yeh et al. (2010). In tar sands surface mining, by “removing the functional vegetation layer at the surface of a peatland, the disturbed ecosystem loses its ability to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.” When peat is put into storage for later reclamation purposes, it decomposes, releasing CO2 and CH4 (commonly known as methane, one of six identified greenhouse gases). Over time, tailing ponds also produce CH4 emissions—a gas “25 times more potent than CO2.”

GHG emissions from land-use change factors in the loss of a sink (a natural system known to capture carbon), as well as the addition of sources (gases produced from stored peat and tailing ponds). I queried the State Department on whether these emissions had been considered in their estimates. The first spokesperson responded, “off the record, no.” The question was also submitted to the Clean Energy Branch of Alberta Environment, who quickly replied, “We have supported some scientific research in this respect; that work is currently in the peer review process so we cannot report on that work at this point in time.”

The area of boreal forest to be razed as part of tar sands extraction is small. So far, about 150 square miles of Canada’s two million square miles of boreal forest have been denuded for tar sands operations. If projected GHG emissions from land-use change were available, they would most likely be a fraction of the total. However, fractions add up and the exclusion of that data in final, official reports does say something about an approach to calculation that puts human activity at the top while neglecting to weigh long-term environmental outcomes.

Woodwell cautions it is time to consider environment and economy as mutually dependent: “We’re at a stage we can’t afford to lose any more forests in the world. The building up of carbon, year after the year, is the problem. We're pulling climate out from under all life including civilization, and the consequences of that are devastating."

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