A new report released by the Transportation Research Board examines the prospect of transporting diluted bitumen, the intermediate form of oil produced by tar sands, through oil pipelines. The report finds that diluted bitumen poses no additional risks to pipeline safety than does any other form of crude. That is to say, the pipelines should not leak any more often when carrying tar sands products than when they carry normal crude oil. This may affect the upcoming policy decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would travel over a major aquifer in the Great Plains.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, or other projects which seek to extract heavy bitumen, or “tar-sands” oil. The process is energy intensive and produces massive volumes of highly contaminated wastewater. Perhaps more importantly, the tar sands represent a colossal reserve of solid carbon; refining it into gasoline would result in it eventually being burned and turned into carbon dioxide gas. If we’re going to get a handle on climate change, at some point we must slow down the rate at which carbon is removed from the ground and released into the atmosphere. Stopping the Keystone XL pipeline does not guarantee this outcome, but it does at least slow down the release of carbon by constraining access to refineries and reducing its economic potential.