Geography in the News: Keystone Pipeline and Canadian Tar Sands

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and


Supporters and protesters continue to lobby both the White House and U.S. Congress for and against the 1,700-mile long (2,736-km) Keystone pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Keystone XL, as the pipeline is called, would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands, reportedly one of the largest but dirtiest sources of oil on earth.


Tar sands, also called oil sands, actually contain no tar. They are instead deposits in the earth made of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy, black, viscous crude oil, much like cold molasses. The bitumen cannot easily be separated from tar sands’ other components. Instead, it must be extracted from the tar sands, an expensive and complex process.

Additionally, it requires two tons (1.8 metric tons) of tar sands to create one barrel of oil.

To extract the bitumen, tar sands are normally strip-mined, or mined with open pit methods. Alternatively, steam is injected into deep deposits to heat the sands, thus reducing the bitumen’s viscosity. This allows the bitumen to be pumped out more like conventional crude oil.

Bitumen, however, is not ready to be refined when it leaves the earth. Because it is so viscous, bitumen must be diluted with lighter petroleum before its transported by pipelines to ultimately be upgraded into synthetic crude oil.

Large deposits of tar sands exist in many countries of the world including the United States, Russia and Middle Eastern countries. Canada and Venezuela, however, have the largest deposits of tar sands. Together, they are estimated to hold about 3.6 trillion barrels of oil. Comparatively, the world’s known crude oil reserves equal about 1.75 trillion barrels.

With about 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in Canada’s tar sands, also called the Athabasca oil sands, the country has moved ahead of Mexico and Saudi Arabia to become the largest supplier of oil and refined products to the United States. As recently as 2011, the United States imported about 780,000 barrels a day of tar-sands oil from Canada, 60 percent of Canadian production.

Whether or not the United States should ramp up its oil imports from Canada is the big question. Doing so would mean completion of the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas.

Few people can argue that importing oil into the United States from Canada is better than importing it from the Middle East. According to media reports, the Canadian government, the oil industry and many in the U.S. Congress support increasing Canadian tar-sands oil imports to the United States, including construction of the pipeline. Many citizen groups vehemently oppose the pipeline based mainly on environmental concerns.

Nevertheless, while the United States undoubtedly needs plenty of oil, many question whether it should come from Canada’s tar sands. There are three main arguments against the Keystone XL.

First, making liquid fuel from tar sands keeps the United States dependent on a very polluting source of energy. The process required for steam injection and refining reportedly generates two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of oil as conventionally produced oil.

The second argument is against the pipeline itself. While the Keystone XL could transport another 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to the United States every day, it carries substantial risks. Tar-sands oil is more corrosive in nature than conventional oil. Opponents of the Keystone XL say the tar-sands oil could corrode the pipeline leaving it at an increased risk for spills.

The proposed location of the Keystone pipeline has changed several times and may yet change again. An early location stretched across the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. The Ogallala is a shallow aquifer, one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world and crucial for the $20 billion agricultural operations of the region.

The third objection involves the fluidity of the world’s petroleum market. Oil from the Keystone that might be refined along the Gulf Coast may be sold to foreign markets and may not reach the U.S. markets at all.

As controversy swirls around tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, Americans struggle to strike a balance between their energy needs and environmental pollution.

And that is Geography in the News.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: and

This is a revision of GITN 1114 Oil Sands Controversy for David Braun’s NewsWatch blog, originally written for’s Maps101 Education package October 7, 2011. This was just one of nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..