West Coast Warned to Prepare for 'Tar Sands Invasion'

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West Coast Warned to Prepare for 'Tar Sands Invasion'

The amount of tar sands crude moving through the West Coast is poised to increase by more than 1.7 million barrels per day

Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and ForestEthics say "the Keystone XL pipeline is only the beginning." (Image: NRDC/Screenshot)

Environmentalists have issued a warning to the West Coast: Watch out...the tar sands are coming.

North America's Pacific Coast, from the San Francisco Bay to British Columbia, is facing a "tar sands invasion," according to an analysis released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), NextGen Climate America, ForestEthics, and a coalition of 26 partner organizations.

"The West Coast is about to fall victim to a tar sands invasion, unless our leaders choose to protect the health and safety of our communities and say no to Big Oil."
—Anthony Swift, Natural Resources Defense Council

The amount of tar sands crude moving through the West Coast could increase by more than 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) if existing proposals for pipelines, refineries, and export facilities move forward, the report (pdf) states—an influx that is bound to have negative public health, climate, social justice, and environmental impacts.

Anthony Swift, deputy director of NRDC's Canada Project, explained further in a blog post:

If it proceeds, this invasion will put public safety at risk and harm water resources, air quality, and the climate. A tar sands spill from train, pipeline, or tanker could devastate local economies, pristine wilderness, harm human health, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup. Tar sands spills have proven more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it difficult to contain or recover. Meanwhile, while rail continues to be economically marginal for tar sands producers seeking to access the Gulf Coast refinery market, the West Coast is much closer—for instance, Washington state is a third the distance between northern Alberta and the Gulf Coast. This puts millions of residents throughout the West Coast at risk of tar sands unit train accidents and derailments. In refinery fence-line communities, emissions associated with processing tar sands are suspected to be even more detrimental to human health than existing harmful emissions from conventional crude.

"Keystone is not the only way the tar sands threaten our country," philanthropist and NextGen Climate co-founder Tom Steyer reportedly said Tuesday at an event in Oakland, releasing the report. "The owners of the tar sands are always looking for other routes to the world's oceans and the world's markets."

And that search for new outlets has led straight to the Pacific Coast, where the oil industry seeks to: increase tanker and barge traffic 25 fold; increase tar sands at West Coast refineries from 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 800,000 bpd by 2040; and create a dozen new rail terminals that would significantly increase the region's crude-by-rail traffic, according to the groups' analysis. 

All this would increase the region's carbon pollution by up to 26 million metric tons—the equivalent of adding 5.5 million cars to the road, environmentalists say.

This image, from the report, illustrates the scope of the expansion:

(Credit: Natural Resources Defense Council, et al)

Earlier this week, even before the release of West Coast Tar Sands Invasion, San Francisco's CBS affiliate reported that refineries in the Bay Area are "gearing up" to bring in Alberta tar sands in by ship.

"Today's refineries are all designed to take ships in," energy consultant David Hackett told CBS-SF.

"The California refineries are designed to process crude that is heavy and dense, and relatively high in sulfur. So the Canadian tar sands is the kind of quality that will fit in to the California refineries fairly well," Hackett said, predicting that tankers full of tar sands oil could be coming into the San Francisco Bay in large numbers by 2018.

To combat this looming expansion, the study calls on states to "aggressively pursue" clean energy strategies while spurring low carbon transportation and energy solutions; to reject new major tar sands infrastructure projects; and to enact safety, emergency response, and air pollution standards that ensure the risk of a tar sands spills is eliminated.

As the NRDC's Swift declared: "The West Coast is about to fall victim to a tar sands invasion, unless our leaders choose to protect the health and safety of our communities and say no to Big Oil."

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