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Looking at Keystone XL: What's in the Pipe?

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No doubt about it, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a cause célèbre among Natives and non-Natives alike. The National Congress of American Indians has officially condemned the venture. Native actress Tantoo Cardinal was among those arrested, along with actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder, at protests in front of the White House. The Oglala Sioux have indicated that they might not permit the pipeline to cross the existing conduit that supplies water to Pine Ridge Reservation.

Although President Obama had initially promised a decision on the pipeline by the end of the year, recent statements from the White House suggest he may not deliver his verdict until early 2012. It the tide turning against Keystone XL? Are lawmakers listening to the many voices who are against the project? Only time will tell.

Conceived by the energy giant TransCanada, Keystone XL would carry oil from the Alberta oil sands to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. But there is far more to the venture than that. Here are the essentials about Keystone XL–related issues that everyone should know, the better to address ongoing public debate about the pipeline:

What’s in the Pipeline
The Alberta tar sands, more properly known as the Athabasca oil sands, contain deposits of a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, which is a very dense petroleum dubbed “tar.” ("Tar" is a colloquial description, and a bit of a misnomer—the word "tar" more properly refers to the odorous and viscous liquid that is produced by burning coal or wood. The "tar" found in oil sands is similar in appearance, but is a different substance.) In conventional oil extraction, a well is dug into the ground, a reserve is tapped, and liquid crude oil is pumped to the surface to be refined. Extracting usable oil from bituminous sands is harder. First, the sand-clay-tar mixture must be surface-mined, then the bitumen must be separated out. The pure bitumen isn’t oil in the customary sense; rather than liquid, it is a sludge, with a consistency often compared to that of molasses. Because it will not flow through a pipeline, it must either be upgraded (to form synthetic crude) or diluted (to become “dilbit”). These intermediate forms of oil are then refined like crude at a refinery.

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