Tar sands could flow to New England if pipelines are built

Posted Jan. 30, 2014, at 5:35 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2014, at 5:52 a.m.

In contrast to regions such as the upper Midwest, the Northeast’s fuel supply has been nearly free of tar sands crude. That may change in coming years if pipeline expansions sought by Canada’s industry proceed, an environmental group is warning.

An increase in the consumption of gasoline made from tar sands, with its bigger carbon footprint, “would move the region backwards in its efforts to fight climate change,” said a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The advocacy group is a leading critic of Canadian plans to expand production and shipment through new pipelines, including the Texas-bound Keystone XL system.

Keystone XL’s southern leg has just started delivering supplies to the Gulf Coast. Its northern leg from Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma is awaiting a permit decision from the Obama administration in the next few months. And pipelines are being considered to carry tar sands eastward to Atlantic refineries as well.

That means that people who live in New England and the mid-Atlantic regions could, for the first time, be fueling their cars or heating their homes with fuels refined from the tar sands — a petroleum source that uses up so much energy during production that it emits about 17 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per gallon of gas consumed than conventional fuel.

“By 2020, if these carbon intensive projects move forward, as much as 18 percent of the region’s petroleum-based transportation and heating fuel supply could be derived from the high-carbon feedstock,” said the report, based on research done for NRDC by the consulting firm Hart Energy LLC.

That would increase the region’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 10 million tons, an amount that would offset most of the pollution reductions expected to be achieved by the region’s comprehensive carbon trading scheme, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which controls carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Canada wants to at least double tar sands production in the years ahead, and to do so it needs to open up new markets. Most of the oil to be shipped to the Gulf Coast via the proposed Keystone XL is expected to be refined there and then exported. While it mainly will go overseas, some could be ferried by tankers or pumped in pipelines to the Northeastern United States.

Most people have no idea where the gas and heating oil they use comes from. So the first step in avoiding a surge in tar sands fuels, the NRDC report said, is better tracking of fuels from the point of origin.

But in the end, it might be necessary to pass rules discouraging dirtier fuels in the region.

Dozens of cities and towns in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine have approved resolutions that reject tar sands fuel and urge their states to bring in more clean fuels to the region, according to the report, and it encourages others to do the same.

The Northeastern states considered are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, plus Washington, D.C.

The report highlighted a resolution adopted by Burlington, Vt., in December that expressed opposition to shipments of tar sands oil and asked the state and its neighbors to exclude oil from refineries that use tar sands.

The resolution called for “policies such as a Clean Fuels Standard to help keep such fuels out of the region’s fuel supplies.”

California has such a law, which has so far survived court challenges. So does the European Union, although it is considering phasing it out after the year 2020.

A 2007 proposal to enact a regional clean fuel standard for northeastern states has not made any progress. President Barack Obama has in the past supported a national clean fuels standard, but has not pushed it hard, and it has made no headway in Congress.

 

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