Changing Planet

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.


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..
  • Ann

    I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the oil sands being an environmental disaster in itself, but don’t have enough information either way to comment on that. My biggest question is why is Canadian oil going to the U.S. at all? Why do we not keep our resources in Canada for Canadians and only sell what is in excess to the U.S.? We have refineries here and it would cut down on the costs of heating oil and gasoline for Canadians. It’s about time we put Canada first instead of selling out to the U.S. and other countries. The Free trade agreement should be scrapped and we should become a self-sufficient country before we wind up losing all our resources.

  • Rob

    Ann, TransCanada will make much more money sending the oil south and exporting it (to Europe, China, etc) from US ports than it stands to make from selling it in North American markets. The cost of building a pipeline west through the mountains and BC and exporting from Canada is substantially higher.

    The mainstream media – and even this article – sort of frame this as something like environmentalists versus oil needs. But in reality, the Keystone XL pipeline is all about profit for one company, not demand in the region. TransCanada’s PR department has done a very good job spreading misinformation about this. The Canadian government essentially has handed away mineral rights to a few oil companies in that part of Alberta, and they’re hoping for some kind of kickback in the form of marginally higher tax revenues. They’re not interested in keeping down Canadian fuel prices for the people.

    One important note for the authors – the pipeline’s revised route actually still goes through the Ogallala Aquifer. They have moved it out of the Nebraska Sandhills, but not the aquifer.

  • Mark

    Tar sands is dirty nasty oil (the dirtiest in the world) which takes a lot of energy just to get it out of the ground. It has left behind a polluted blackened treeless moonscape with massive lakes of toxic sludge held back by dams where there was once pristine forest and unpolluted rivers and lakes. That moonscape is scheduled to expand to an area the size of Florida. It is devastating the wildlife and the native inhabitants who are dying of cancers and diseases from the chemicals downstream. It not only destroys Canada, it destroys the world, with tar sands’ contribution to global climate change being huge and irreversible. Not to mention people attacked by this pipeline are forced off their properties from enforced “eminent domain” by Canadian companies who are are given a pass to threaten and extort Americans, as well as a pass to cause unreported “permissible” spillage in US waters which will be hundreds of thousands of gallons before they feel like doing anything about it. It will do nothing for “jobs” except the jobs of the billionaires This dirty oil will end up in Texas refineries where 85% of it will then be shipped to China. so the pipeline oil is essentially refined in the US for the benefit of Canadians and then exported overseas. Canada’s government is now run by profiteering tyrants has earned the reputation of being one of worst environmental renegades

  • Unknown Connaisseur

    None you know anything about the supply side, logistics and processing of crude oil in the first place… It comes down to reducing the costs of shipping and getting it to market. Stop thinking about political boundaries when contemplating crude oil and refined petroleum products.

    On the environmental side, moving crude by pipeline is considerably safer then shipping by rail.

  • Joseph Lawrence

    As an energy research scientist I would like to clarify a few things on this article that are not correct.

    – Western Canadian Select & Naphtha Diluted Bitumen contain carboxylic acids as do all biomass liquids. These weak acids are only corrosive at high temperatures (>200 C) and therefore not a concern in a cold (< 10 C) water free pipeline.

    – Canadian heavy blends are no less 'dirty' than Californian heavy crude, Mexican Mayan heavy crude, Venezualan heavy crude, Iragi light crude etc etc. All these crudes have similar GHG life cycle emission intensity, metals content etc.

    – The GHG emissions every year out of Alberta's Oil Sands Industry is equivalent to 4 to 5 large coal plants or less than Obama's home state Illinois.

  • William Griffiths

    I am an economist and developing-country transportation specialist. The pipeline issue is important but there is a more basic problem. Canada’s oil reserves are far greater than Canadian needs, yet Canadians must pay ridiculous prices for petroleum products. This is because of unabashed price manipulation in the international markets. A few Canadians get very rich off of this resource and the rest get only the unconscionable prices. If I were the boss, Canadian demand would be met from Canadian production and refining. The producing and refining companies would be allowed a fair but regulated profit. The surplus production, whether crude or refined products, could then be exported at world prices, but recognizing in the distribution of the benefits that this is a Canadian resource belonging to all of the Canadian people, not just a privileged few. And I am neither communist nor socialist

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