Fracking and Tar Sands: The New “Magic Bullets?”
Tar Sands


Portland is the postcard city of Maine.  Busy streets host tourists sampling blueberry jams and enjoying lobster rolls on the wharf, shoppers with arms full of L. L. Bean bags, meandering down the cobblestone, business people at lunch meetings on patios.  We’re all proud to be Mainers, proud of the allure that draws people from all over the world to visit us during all seasons, designating us “Vacationland.”  We’re the second—yes, the second—greenest state in the country right behind Vermont.  That’s more reason for our residents to be proud, and protective, from our mountains to our shores; especially when our own South Portland could be the point of delivery for an unfavorable crude oil product called “tar sands.”

Currently, the Portland Pipeline Corp. operates a terminal and a pair of parallel, 236-mile-long underground pipes in South Portland that supply crude oil from below Casco Bay to a refinery in Montreal.   These pipes are over sixty years old, and cross major Maine watersheds, including Sebago Lake.  Portland Pipeline Corp. has stated having no immediate plans to reverse the flow of the line; however, the South Portland City Council chose to ask voters in November if they would like an ordinance to preemptively prevent tar sands crudes from streaming through the city (click here to read more).

Tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) represent approximately two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves.  They are essentially grains of sand that are wrapped in layers of clay, water and bitumen, a heavy, viscous, black oil.  Sands are gritty, not liquid and therefore cannot be pumped from the ground; they must be mined and then diluted with a plethora of volatile organic chemicals before they can be transported through pipelines.

Separation of the oil from sands requires an abundance of clean hot water, which unfortunately cannot be recycled, and must be stored in aboveground open-air ponds that can contaminate water through evaporation and seepage.  It takes about two tons of tar sands to produce one barrel (42 gallons) of oil.

There is a sensitivity to oil transport in any form, by ship, rail, and of course, pipeline.  Look at the recent spill in Mayflower, Arkansas where 200,000 gallons of oil cascaded from the 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline owned by Exxon Mobil.  Pipes constructed before the 1970s commonly have problematic hairline cracks due to faulty weld techniques.

Another hot topic in the energy world is hydrofracking.  Hydrofracking is a technique for extracting natural gas and other elements like uranium and petroleum.  Water, sand and chemicals are mixed and injected at high pressure into wells drilled from shale beds.  The pressure creates small fractures that are usually smaller than one millimeter.

Through hydrofracking, the United States has become energy independent, and the price of natural gas has dropped tremendously.  However, fracking does have disadvantages such as increased seismic activity in areas where hydrofracking is conducted, serious depletion of fresh water.  Also, where toxic chemicals are being forced into the ground at high pressures, land and water supplies are becoming contaminated.

Remember ethanol?  Yes, ethanol, that high-cost, low-yield by-product of corn that now isn’t much more than an additive in gasoline.  Ethanol was supposed to revolutionize the face of energy.  Ethanol was supposed to be a cleaner, greener way to wean America from foreign oil dependence by powering our homes and vehicles into the future.

But as some environmentalists will tell you, take into consideration what resources are depleted to grow corn.  Corn is not a perennial crop; it needs to be completely replanted every single season, and fertilized amply.  Land needs to be cultivated annually if crops are not rotated.  For every 26.1 pounds of corn—about 104 ears of corn—one gallon of ethanol is produced.  All things considered, corn isn’t much cleaner than gasoline.  Also, corn prices have nearly tripled over the last six years, which has made feed more expensive for livestock farmers.

There’s a common theme between the harvesting of tar sands, fracking and ethanol, and it’s this: we have an inherent, societal inability to assess detrimental environmental externalities and net economic benefit.  What that means is that without considering the potential impact on the environment and rapidly depleting resources, these bandwagons are jumped upon blindly.

At Thayer, we’re seeing an increased tendency for consumers to rush into converting to natural gas units without considering the equipment they have to upgrade.  Natural gas may seem like a more economical option, but take the opportunity to develop a long-term plan.  Natural gas may cost more where a comprehensive preventative maintenance plan could effectively prolong equipment life, save more money, and present less of an environmental strain.