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Keystone XL pipeline expansion driven by oil-rich sands in Canada

Tires for Shell Oil's sand oil hauling trucks cost $60,000 each and are 14 feet tall. (Washington Post Photo)

FORT McMURRAY, Alberta, Canada -- Repairman Shawn Flett stood 30 feet above the ground on the deck of a truck the size of a house. He had just waved it gingerly into the repair shop as if guiding an airplane into a hangar.

This is a beast of a machine, with 14-foot tires and weighing in at more than a million pounds. The truck burns 50 gallons of diesel an hour as it rumbles with 400-ton loads across the giant open-pit mines that have transformed a swath of Alberta's vast northern forest into unsightly but lucrative sources of oil.

"It handles like a Cadillac," Flett joked.

Every day, fleets of these Brobdingnagian trucks are digging up countless tons of Alberta's oil sands -- a black, gooey mixture of sand, oil and water that lies just below the Canadian province's boreal forest, an immense region thick with jack pines, spruce, aspen and tamarack trees and fed by wetlands that cover most of the area.

The viscous petroleum, or bitumen, is so common that, in some places, it oozes out along the banks of the Athabasca River and was used by Native Americans to seal canoes. Canada's economically recoverable oil sands are estimated to be about 170 billion barrels, reserves second in size only to Saudi Arabia's.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that production, now 1.7 million barrels a day, could nearly double by 2020, enough to supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption. With that, the oil sands would be producing more than Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq or Kuwait.

The rush to expand has been fueled by high oil prices, which for the past six years have held above the $50 a barrel threshold needed to make the oil sands projects profitable, and has turned this northern Alberta outpost into a bustling boom town.

This expansion is the reason TransCanada proposed building the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile line that would add a link between Alberta and the hungry oil refineries on the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The line would go through a number of Midwestern states, including South Dakota.

The pipeline has become a powerful symbol and political pawn this election year. It is also a sort of Rorschach test of how Americans view energy issues: Are we energy-rich or energy-poor? How do energy policies affect job creation, tax revenue and U.S. manufacturing competitiveness? How pressing are climate change concerns and how do we balance them with economic priorities?

The American public is firmly behind the pipeline, seeing plenty of upside in potential jobs and limited environmental downside. A new Washington Post poll finds nearly six in 10 saying the U.S. government should approve the project. Its wide acceptance is rooted in the fact that 83 percent think it will create jobs. Nearly half think it will not cause significant damage to the environment.

The oil industry and many national security experts think that importing more oil from Canada, a stable neighbor and ally, will make the United States more secure and worry that, without the Keystone XL, Canada will send that oil to China. But the process of extracting oil from the sands, also called tar sands, has alarmed people worried about climate change.

Unlike oil that spurts up from reservoirs in most of the world, including Saudi Arabia, half of Canada's oil sands are dredged up in a process more akin to strip mining. Trees are cut, layers of wetland fen and peat are drained and peeled back, and then the companies dig into a rich layer of oil sands that go down nearly 400 feet. In areas to the south where the gunky oil lies even deeper, companies are drilling wells, generating and injecting steam into the ground to melt the bitumen, and then sucking it up to the surface.

All of this is extremely energy intensive. Companies expend energy equal to one barrel of oil to extract four to eight barrels from the oil sands.

More energy expended means more greenhouse gases. A Congressional Research Service report released May 15 estimated that Canada's oil sands produced 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of U.S. imported crude oil -- or comparable to low-quality Venezuelan crudes.

By other standards, however, oil sands look worse. The "well-to-tank" emissions (those created just to get the gas to the car) of Canadian oil sands are about twice as high as the average U.S. crude import.

In addition, stripping the wetlands of peat and fen -- which naturally store carbon dioxide -- compounds the problem, says Jennifer Grant, oil sands director at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmentally oriented think tank.

That's why foes of the Keystone XL have turned the pipeline, just one of many built or expanded every year, into a test of President Barack Obama's commitment to slowing climate change.

"The projects themselves are enormous and ugly -- but even uglier is the freight of carbon they contain," said Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor who has been a leading voice against the pipeline. "That's the second-largest pool of carbon on Earth. . . . No one who is serious about fighting climate change can want to see that oil out of the ground and into the air."