The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it was delaying a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the U.S. until after the 2012 election. The pipeline is meant to transport oil derived from the Alberta tar sands.

Oil sands or tar sands are considered "unconventional oil." These deposits are referred to as bitumen and occur in the U.S., Venezuela, and to the greatest extent in Canada. They are dense, difficult to mine, and not readily compatible with existing pipelines. Alberta, Canada's Athabasca Oil Sands is the largest reservoir of bitumen in the world, comparable in size to the world's biggest reserves of conventional petroleum.

The delay would "effectively kill" the project, said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, quoted in The Los Angeles Times. "The carrying costs are too high, and there's no certainty that at the end of 18 months the pipeline would be approved at all."

Mining these deposits is economical only when the price of oil is high. And like all mining operations, oil sands operations have a strong impact on the environment:

  • The Canadian oil sands lie under boreal forests, which are strongly impacted by mining operations
  • The extraction process uses a host of toxic chemicals.
  • The residue or tailings form vast lakes of toxins near waterways.
  • The numbers differ whether you believe oil companies or environmentalists -- but the water intensity of developing these unconventional oils is very high.  Oil Sands Watch, a conservation-minded group, claims that approximately 12 barrels of water are required to produce each barrel of oil from bitumen. Up to 70 percent of this water is reused, but that still means two to four barrels of water are used to produce each barrel of oil from oil sands mining. Greenpeace gives the number as 349 million cubic meters per year, twice the amount of water used by the city of Calgary. 
  • And in the end, we burn the stuff to power our transportation.

The issue of the construction of the pipeline and the environmental impact of oil from tar sands versus revenue, jobs, and national oil security have resulted in protests by affected citizens and arrests of environmentalists as well as lobbying from oil companies. We've covered the tar sands issue before -- its environmental impact, whether it be the energy necessary to process the material or water usage would make it one of the globe's dirtiest energy sources.

Nevertheless, The Heartland Institute -- a free-market, libertarian think tank -- is disappointed in the decision:

“The lobbying groups pushing for delay are using a whole raft of phony arguments, like air quality. They are ignoring the obvious: Every barrel of oil from Canada means one less from OPEC -- improving national security and reducing the risk of oil spills from tankers," said S. Fred Singer, Senior Fellow, Environment, The Heartland Institute.

“The Keystone XL pipeline promises to increase energy security, lower energy prices, and create much-needed jobs during a time when millions of Americans are desperately seeking work. If the Obama administration follows through on apparent plans to delay an approval decision on the pipeline, this will merely show voters that the Obama administration cares more about appeasing its environmental activist allies than doing what is right for our economy and our nation’s energy security. Moreover, by delaying an approval decision until after the 2012 elections, the Obama administration is demonstrating that it considers electioneering and its own political interests as being more important than the good of the nation," according to James M. Taylor Senior Fellow, Environment Policy at The Heartland Institute.

Here's a good one about "more dumb windmills" and supplying oil to China.

“The supposed environmental hazard of the Keystone pipeline is just cover for the ongoing campaign to inhibit the use of fossil fuels in favor of environmentally correct green energy. What does this mean? More delay, higher prices, more dumb windmills, more oil from the Middle East. The Canadians would be fully justified in working with the Chinese and building a pipeline to Vancouver. From there the vast oil reserve of the Canadian oil sands could supply China for years to come," according to Norman Rogers Policy Advisor, Environment, The Heartland Institute.

The anti-tar sands faction includes activist Bill McKibben, founder of, who spearheaded protests against the pipeline. He said, "A done deal has come spectacularly undone. The American people spoke loudly and today the president responded, at least in part. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone XL. One month ago, a secret poll of “energy insiders” by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end. As late as last week, the CBC reported that TransCanada was moving huge quantities of pipe across the border and seizing land by eminent domain, certain that its permit would be granted. The president should know that nothing that happened today changes our position -- we’re unequivocal in our opposition. If this pipeline proposal reemerges from the review process intact, we will use every form of nonviolent civil disobedience to keep it from ever being built."