Wild city // Tar sands oil: the Minnesota connection

For those of us who have been following the news about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, it has been a wild ride. The latest wrinkle: President Obama has come out in favor of building the southern half of the line, the part that runs from Oklahoma to Texas, ASAP.

In February, under pressure from a Republican Congress, the President had refused to expedite the building of the pipeline. In his recent announcement in favor of it he said: “As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people.”

All I can think is, “Good luck with that.” Oil pipelines break, and oil spills harm our land and water — and us. In addition, our use of fossil fuels is causing the earth to warm, creating climate havoc. The connector between the clauses in Obama’s sentence is made of wishful thinking. We can no longer both burn all the fossil fuels we want, and be safe and healthy. We have to choose one or the other.

The oil that would be sent down the Keystone XL pipeline is called tar sands oil. I have copies of some 20 different news articles about it strewn across my desk. Spend a couple hours reading this stuff, and your mood gets as black as the oil itself. What is the appropriate feeling: anger, dismay, grief? How did we get ourselves into this mess?

Everything about tar sands oil is nasty: 1) forests and peat bogs are scraped away, 2) large pits are dug into the earth to get at the raw material, 3) huge amounts of water are used to separate the oil from the thick tar, a process that pollutes the water and requires that it be stored in holding ponds, 4) the excavation is done on a gargantuan scale — to get one barrel of oil (there are 42 gallons in a barrel) two tons of earth must be dug up and processed, 5) tar sands oil is considered the world’s dirtiest fuel, and using it will speed up global warming.

We might feel removed from the controversy about the Keystone XL pipeline: it would be built in states to the west and south. We might feel removed from the controversy about mining tar sands: it is happening in Alberta, Canada.

But a company called Enbridge built a pipeline across northern Minnesota a couple of years ago. Tar sands oil is running through that pipeline right now, as you read this. The cat is out of the bag. 

Our tar sands oil pipeline, almost 300 miles long, enters Minnesota near the northwest corner and runs diagonally across to Superior, Wisconsin, along an existing pipeline corridor. The 36-inch diameter pipe was laid, section by section, underground. It runs through forests and farms, under wetlands, lakes, and streams.

Enbridge named the pipeline the Alberta Clipper, apparently without a sense of irony. An Alberta Clipper is a type of winter storm. It is a weather feature. Extracting, processing and burning oil is affecting our weather. 

The process required to approve the Minnesota pipeline was similar to the one for the Keystone XL. Hilary Clinton, the Secretary of State, had to sign off on the Alberta Clipper, for example, because it crosses the Canada/U.S. border, just as she would have to sign off on the northern part of the Keystone XL pipeline. 

The Alberta Clipper was approved in 2009, a couple of years before the nation-wide outcry over the Keystone XL. That approval process flew under the radar —at least it flew under mine. I was vaguely aware of the issue at the time, but it didn’t fully register on my consciousness. I was busy. We had a health problem to deal with in my family. And we all resist thinking about grim, urgent things. It might make us realize we have to change, and we hate that.

Tar sands oil pipelines are more likely to burst than those transporting conventional crude, as this new type of oil is heavy and corrosive, and puts extra pressure on pipes. Still, we are using the same kind of pipe, and the same kind of safety plans, that we have used for regular oil.

There have been dozens of spills on Enbridge’s regular oil pipelines across northern Minnesota. The largest oil spill in the state, 1.7 million gallons, occurred on its line near Grand Rapids in 1991. Oil fouled a wetland and flowed into the Prairie River.

One million gallons of tar sands oil spilled out of an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan in 2010. Oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River. Land and water affected are still contaminated, and some of the land has been abandoned.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.