“It is a very liquid,” he told the Senate committee studying pipelines. “It is oil like oil.” As such, bitumen is also a “high priority,” says a paper the federal government commissioned in 2008 to determine the safety and environmental impacts of the oil-sands bitumen pipeline that carries crude from Alberta through the vast Athabasca oil sands complex to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The study, titled “Trans-Canada’s Gateway Pacific: Environmental Impacts and Road-Safety Challenges,” noted that although bitumen is chemically similar to lighter grades of petroleum, it has a higher melting point. That makes the “smooth bitumen a great conductor of heat,” it said, and it is “not an ideal alternative.” Bitumen and the oil that contains it are flammable and so the study stated that even if spilled properly, it would not have the required protection to stop it from spreading.
The problem with “low-emissions” tar sands is that oil will have to be shipped through pipelines long distances. The United States gets about one-half of the oil it consumes from Alberta. A tar sands pipeline is a big project. And with the country in a fiscal crisis, the Obama administration approved the $7-billion Keystone XL oil pipeline, which is expected to carry 40 million barrels a day, through Nebraska and Oklahoma before it crosses the border into Canada. If approved, it would bring some 2.3 million barrels of tar sands crude, a mix of bitumen and other heavy components, to refineries along the West Coast. That would mean at least two or three times the amount of Canadian crude that flows from Alberta to global markets. It will be the largest new oil pipeline in North American history.
To get to the West Coast, and to get there quickly, the pipeline would have to go through the U.S. Midwest, not all the way to the Gulf.
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But even in the region where it would be most effective, there are questions about how it will travel through wetlands. In 2008, a federally funded study asked how much it would cost to protect wetlands along the route, in order to prevent spills. One estimate estimated it would cost $250-million to $500-million to build and maintain the pipeline’s existing right of way, plus an additional $1.6-billion for wetlands that cross wetlands when pipelines are in use. A report commissioned by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainability also put a price
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