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Aerial photo of Suncor Millenium Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

In an effort to tamp down demand for the crude produced from Canada's oil sands, pictured above, environmental groups are urging companies to investigate what goes into their transportation fuel.

Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published May 5, 2014

What if you could choose where your fuel comes from?

In the United States, crude oil that is refined into gasoline comes from many sources: Mexico, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia all supply the American market, along with oil fields in states such as Texas and North Dakota.

The largest share of U.S. petroleum, however, comes from Canada's oil sands—a fount of new oil wealth that is behind the push to expand the Keystone XL pipeline to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.

Now the Sierra Club and other groups opposed to the pipeline are urging corporations to shift their fuel purchases away from refineries that process sticky diluted bitumen, or "dilbit," from the Canadian oil sands. (See related story: "Oil Spill Spotlights Keystone XL Issue: Is Canadian Crude Worse?")

The aim is to make the transportation-fuel industry more transparent, and to hinder the expansion of tar sands development. But it remains uncertain how much real impact such a boycott can have.

What Goes Into the Gas Pump?

Individual consumers have no way of knowing the original source of the fuel they buy: Retail gas stations get their product from multiple refineries that are impossible to trace.

But some corporations—those that buy directly from refineries or from certain fuel vendors—have the power to investigate what type of oil is being used in their commercial fleets.

The Sierra Club's newly published guide for corporations includes a list of 117 refineries arranged much like a sustainable-seafood consumer guide, categorizing them neatly in three color-coded columns: "OK to Use," "If Necessary," and "Avoid."

Several large companies, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Seventh Generation, and Walgreens, have already made efforts to reduce their consumption of tar sands oil by changing their fuel suppliers. The Sierra Club list is intended to make such boycotts easier for corporations to execute.

Such actions have the potential to send a message. Corporate and government fleets account for 35 percent of transportation-related oil consumption, according to the Sierra Club report.

Targeting the Tar Sands

Why target Canadian crude in particular? Environmentalists point out that the methods used to extract and process oil from the sands in Alberta, 600 miles north of the Montana border, give it a higher carbon footprint than conventional varieties of oil.

Canada's oil sands have also become symbolic of the larger fight over the energy industry's new push to develop oil and gas resources that were once commercially unviable or out of reach.

"One important reason why we're so alarmed by the Canadian tar sands industry is because it is growing at such a tremendous rate," said Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of Sierra Club's Future Fleet and Electric Vehicles Initiative.

Venezuela also exports oil sands crude, but its production is declining.

The International Energy Agency, in its most recent World Energy Outlook, projects that output from Canada's oil sands will more than double by 2035. Continuing the use of tar sands oil, Coplon-Newfield said, "could really spell game over for the planet in terms of its impact on carbon emissions."

Photo of a worker holding the oil sands at the Suncor Facility.
The extraction and processing required to get oil from the sands of Canada makes it more emissions-intensive than conventional types of oil.
Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic

One Refinery, Many Sources

Industry officials contacted by National Geographic say the Sierra Club effort is misguided because it fails to take into account the way refinery operations actually work.

A refinery's mix of crude oil inputs changes on a daily basis, according to Bill Day, vice president of communications for Valero, which operates refineries under all three Sierra Club labels of "OK," "Avoid," and "If Necessary."

"There are some refineries where we have a pretty good idea what the crude slate is going to be," Day said, but the process of buying crude for Valero's facilities is "a very big logistical challenge that happens on an ongoing basis."

The Sierra Club based its list on research from Oil Change International (OCI), a nonprofit organization that advocates for clean energy. Lorne Stockman, OCI's research director, said that publicizing oil sands inputs is part of an effort to boost the transparency of refinery operations.

"Refineries are really opaque," Stockman said. "The data is hard to get, they're quite secretive, they don't publish their feedstocks and emissions very clearly. So we're trying to resolve that with [this research]."

Sierra Club places under its "Avoid" column refineries that "regularly receive significant quantities of tar sands crude." But the numbers vary widely from one red-listed refinery to another: HollyFrontier's Woods Cross refinery north of Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, processed fewer than 1,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day in 2012—about 4 percent of its total input; in the same group, ExxonMobil's Joliet refinery in Illinois processed 164 times that amount—76 percent of its total.

OCI is careful to note that its numbers should be "used as an indicator of levels of tar sands processing at refineries and not precise calculations." It is updating the data annually and plans to release 2013 numbers soon, Stockman said.

Though it's true that the percentages of Canadian crude at any given refinery can fluctuate, he said, typically refineries that have invested in the equipment to process that type of oil will keep doing so in some amount; economically, it makes sense for them to do so. "The Canadian stuff is cheaper," he said.

Hungry for Cheap Crude

Indeed, Day said that Valero wants more Canadian crude (and supports the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport it). Aside from the cost advantage, the company's Gulf Coast refineries—which are outfitted to process heavy oil—want Canadian supply as a replacement for declining production from Venezuela and elsewhere in South America.

"I think one of the things [critics] don't understand is, this oil coming out of Canada, what they call the tar sands, is not any different than the heavy oil that's being processed at refineries today and has been processed at refineries for decades," Day said. "It's the same stuff, it's just coming from a different location."

Opponents of Canadian oil sands development become alarmed by that kind of analysis.

"Once any company understands what the tar sands are, they don't want it in their footprint directly or indirectly," said Aaron Sanger, a consultant with the nonprofit ForestEthics who has worked directly with corporations and the city of Bellingham, Washington, to implement policies that would reduce use of tar sands oil. "It's a clear choice for many of these companies to vote with their fuel purchasing dollars against extending our dependence on oil."

Photo of mine and tailings ponds.
"Once any company understands what the tar sands are, they don't want it in their footprint directly or indirectly," says one opponent. Here, byproducts from the production process are piped into a disposal pond in Canada.
Photograph by Peter Essick, National Geographic

Tracking the Oil

Some companies, such as Columbia Sportswear and eBay, have adopted policies that ask transportation or fuel providers to say what actions they are taking to reduce tar sands use. But a no-tar-sands policy is "more effective when it results in actual switching of a fuel contract from a refinery that uses tar sands to a refinery that does not use tar sands," Sanger said.

When Walgreens started changing its fuel contracts, Sanger said, "several tar sands refineries experienced that loss of demand." He cited Whole Foods and Trader Joe's as other examples of companies that were able to shift part of their supply chain to refineries that do not use Canadian crude. (See related story: "The New Truck Stop: Filling Up With Natural Gas for the Long Haul.")

But the number of companies capable of making these types of fuel switches are "just a drop in the bucket" relative to the way most fleets are fueled, according to Joanne Shore, chief industry analyst for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade group.

Many fleet managers buy gasoline from depots or bulk vendors that mix fuel from a variety of sources, allowing little insight into which refineries it came from.

Some fleets may have direct access to fuel terminals that are attached to specific refineries, Shore said. But, she said, "I don't see that the volumes involved would be substantial at this point."

Powerful Market Forces

On the Gulf Coast, Shore pointed out, refiners have "any number of markets they can get to" if they lose some domestic corporate demand. In other regions, such as the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest, where Canadian crude is too powerful a market force for refineries to ignore, it is all but impossible to boycott the tar sands.

Bellingham, Washington—a coastal town at a nexus of burgeoning energy transport traffic—passed a resolution a few years ago calling for a reduction in tar sands oil in its fuel as part of an overall climate change action plan. But every refinery in the region processes Canadian crude from up north.

Given that reality, said Bellingham city council member Jack Weiss, "It's going to be harder . . . to effectively do what we're wanting to, under this policy. It's a hard thing, no doubt." (See related story: "Seeking a Pacific Northwest Gateway for U.S. Coal.")

Ultimately, Weiss hopes that such boycotts will become unnecessary. The campaign to use tar-sands-free fuel would be "somewhat a meaningless exercise if we were to be more aggressive with our conservation standards," he said. "Energy efficiency in any form is really where the answer is."

David Richardson
David Richardson

The companies involved in mining the oil sands have created world leading technologies to lessen the footprint and pollution. This technology is used and respected world wide. If these Companies want to boycott Alberta oil by not shipping their products that are manufactured in third world countries under questionable conditions, why do they not close their business and dealers in Alberta if they are really serious about the issue. I will not support any of them. They are  greedy and  want the profits of our strong economy. I travel the world and witness many countries that benefit from the generosity and life saving projects created by Albertan people and  Corporations. There are many other serious problems in the world that will affect our future before the affect from Alberta OIL sands. Look at Syria, Iran, N.Korea. The problems are well established in North America and will change your life in a more drastic way. Do people think that we in Alberta, are not as concerned with Global Warming as the rest of the world? We are working to make change and improve the process. Not standing on a soapbox with a Holier than thou attitude.

Glenn Eckert
Glenn Eckert

Oil has been part of the ecosystem of the Athabasca river long before we got to Fort MacMurray, all this BS about health concerns and cancer downstream has been exposed as overextrapolated lies by Greenies. Lets stick with the facts, the oil sands provides jobs directly and indirectly to millions, and until we invent this mythical fuel that has no environmental impact, I would suggest we continue to develop the Oilsands, not TARSANDS. Its far better than sending our money to backward, third world nations where the top 0.001% use the money for guns or another gold-plated toilet seat rather than helping their people or developing their country.

Zorba Greek
Zorba Greek

Instead, we should be supporting moving completely to renewable energy, conservation and smart grid solution to replace fossil fuels together.  Professor Marc Z. Jacobson has put forward a widely respected plan to do that. Sierra club should be ashamed of itself calling for replacing one piece fossil fuel of s*** with a slightly smaller fossil fuel piece of s***. The technologies exist NOW to replace fossil fuels in a cost competitive manner. It is only politics as usual and nonsense from the Sierra Club that keeps it from happening.

Wayne Young
Wayne Young

The whole thing about oil sands is all smoke and mirrors and detracts from the real source of the problrm which is coal - coal is many many  times more a powerfull contributor to greenhouse gases and far far more of a problem - we could eliminate the oil sands oil tomorrow and it wouldn't even slow down the growth of climate change - this is the real fact and all this other stuff a distraction and until the environmental groups get off their collective keysters and get to the real enemy the sooner we will be able to deal with it - until then the environment will get worse and worse until it's too late - why do environmentalists not realize this - what is it about oil?

Andrew Roberts
Andrew Roberts

Here's the catch 22: People say they want renewable energy sources and don't use Oil Sands, however the minute the price at the pump goes up people complain.  Make a decision folks- suffer a little now for the future or don't suffer and let the future worry about it self.  

John Patt
John Patt

We could individually reduce our oil consumption from any source by using common sense. People typically turn the heat on when the temperature drops to 68. But they will turn the AC down to 65. Let's start being more responsible for our own contributions to this mess and not just demand that someone else "do something".  

Richard Elkhal
Richard Elkhal

Companies should start a boycott on oil sands.......... as a temporary solution. They should really be focused on finding a new more environmentally friendly fuel source.

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

Oil is a commodity, if you know anything at all about commodities you know any kind of boycott is doomed to failure. Even if the entire USA had a boycott of oil sands it would just be shipped to a different country for refining and be used elsewhere. 

Basic economics should  be a requirement for all high school kids and journalists alike. 

Gerard Van der Leun
Gerard Van der Leun

Poor little Christina .... doomed to write tripe like this report on the forgettable for the foreseeable future. 

Zorba Greek
Zorba Greek

@R. Elkhal Tell that to the people in local communities that are getting cancer from the millions of litres a day of toxic TAR sands waste leaking into their eco system

Wayne Young
Wayne Young

there are none! every energy source has consequences - you should direct your energy to the real culprit which is coal!

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