Crude, Dirty and Dangerous

EVERY day more than one million barrels of oil flow to refineries in the United States from western Canada’s oil sands region. Producers hope to quadruple that amount in the next decade, arguing that oil from a friendly neighbor will deliver an extra degree of national security.

But this oil is no ordinary crude oil, and it carries with it risks that we’re only beginning to understand. Its core ingredient — bitumen — is not pumped from wells but is strip-mined or boiled loose underground.

Industry insiders long considered bitumen to be a “garbage” crude. But now that the light, sweet oil we covet has become more scarce and its price has skyrocketed, bitumen has become worth the trouble to recover. At room temperature, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter, thick enough to hold in your hands. To get it through pipelines, liquid chemicals must be added to thin it into what’s known as dilbit, short for diluted bitumen.

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