Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Tar Sands to Texas: Will Keystone XL’s Heavy Crude Mean More Pollution?

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Patricia Gonzales at her home in Pasadena

Standing outside her tidy house in Pasadena, Texas, Patricia Gonzales succinctly sums up her community’s dilemma: “No one is saying we don’t want the jobs. It’s just that we don’t want the pollution coming with it.”

Her home is just two miles from the Houston Ship Channel, which is lined with the biggest concentration of petrochemical plants and oil refineries in the nation.

Gonzales was talking about her latest concern: the Keystone XL pipeline. If completed, it will bring millions of barrels of Canadian crude to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur. But the crude, from the tar sands mined in Alberta, is a heavier, dirtier variety than “sweet crude” from places like West Texas.

“We’re already in the highest level of the polluted [places in] the United States and you bring in more. And you want us to accept that?” Gonzales posed to StateImpact Texas.

The Canadians say they found just what they need on the Texas Gulf Coast: refineries that already are built to handle the heavy crude.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Pasadena, Texas

“They cost billions, tens of billions of dollars to build. You have that [refining] capacity in the Gulf Coast. It just doesn’t make any sense to make the tens of billions of dollars of investment [in Canada] when you have that capacity in the Gulf Coast,” said Alex Pourbaix, President of TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone pipeline.

Pourbaix was speaking March 6 at the IHS CERA energy conference in Houston. He was on a panel that touted how tar sands oil is already helping make Canada the leading country as a source of “foreign” oil for the United States, outpacing imported crude from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela.

“Oil sands is already a very important source of oil supply for the United States. And we expect that to grow. Our outlook at IHS CERA is that oil sands will double in the next 10 years, go from 1.5 million barrels a day to over three million barrels a day,” said Jackie Forest with IHS CERA’s Calgary office.

ExxonMobil is reportedly among refineries in Texas already processing heavy crude and therefore likely to do much more from the Keystone XL pipeline. The world’s biggest publicly traded oil company has the nation’s biggest refinery in Baytown and another facility in Beaumont.

An ExxonMobil spokesperson refused to specify how much heavy crude the company’s refineries are already processing in Texas or might process if the pipeline is completed. Nor would the company respond to questions about how refining tar sands oil affects the amount of air pollution created by the plants.

That’s a big concern for environmental groups.

“You’re going to take existing capacity and put an even dirtier substance into it. Which means more stuff is going to have to come out,” said Matthew Tejada, an activist with Air Alliance Houston. The community group contends that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the lead governmental agency for enforcing clean air laws in the state, is being too lenient and is ignoring public concerns.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Matthew Tejada with Air Alliance Houston

“In Texas, we have built in such flexibility into all our permitting, into all our regulatory structures around those facilities that you’re not going to be able to say ‘boo’, you’re not going to be able to do anything about it…Once the crude gets here [from Canada] and those facilities have it, it’s probably going to fit right into their existing permits,” said Tejada.

The TCEQ disagrees.

“These facilities have emission limits and they are required to meet them, no matter what they’re refining. Any change in feedstock that would cause an increase in emissions above those limits will need to be authorized by a permit amendment,” wrote Terry Clawson, TCEQ spokesperson, in an email to StateImpact Texas.

Clawson also wrote that there are provisions for public input and for a review of potential health effects from increased pollution. He said the commission would, in any case, continue to monitor emissions and “take appropriate enforcement action when needed.”

In the case of the ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, such action has already been needed. In an “enforcement order” issued last month, the TCEQ said the company had agreed to upgrade pollution monitoring equipment and to reduce air pollution emissions.


  • Neil Moyer

    Every refinery along the Houston Ship Channel is already configured to process heavy sour crudes; they are processing heavy crudes from MX, Venezuela, and elsewhere.  In fact, the multi-billion dollar heavy crude expansion at the Motiva Port Arthur refinery is intended to allow processing of heavy crude from Saudia Arabia.

    • CitizenKH

       Sorry wrong, the only two refineries taking heavy crude on the Houston Ship Channel are Deer Park Manufacturing Complex (Shell) and Lyondell which import PEMEX Mayan Blend and Venezuela respectively.

      More heavy crude is refined in Louisiana than Texas.  Saudi heavy is not that heavy.

      Heavy crudes are great for making petroleum coke.

      • Neil Moyer

        Pet coke ain’t worth ballast value; Motiva PA will be able to handle more hvy crude of any type than any Gulf Coast refinery; Exxon Baytown has been running MX Maya; just look for cokers, and that’s a hvy crude refinery..

        • CitizenKH

          Baytown has fluid bed cokers, not delayed cokers.  Value of petcoke changed a lot around 1980. Petcoke fetches a higher price than coal

  • CitizenKH

    The terminus of Keystone XL is actually  at Nederland, TX.  Keystone XL is to bring a replacement crude for that imported from Venezuela.  Canadian Syncrude is actually a replacement for crude oil from TWO seriously declining sources, PEMEX Mayan and Venezuela.  12 refineries (more capacity in Louisiana) actually are configured to refine such heavy crude, which is heavier than any other readily available crude in the world.

  • Our TCEQ has my respect all the way around the board. I’ve had to file for permits and they don’t miss too much. TCEQ is here because the EPA KNOWS that they are thorough! Pollution comes with everything, sorry! Don’t like the pollution you live around? MOVE! Try to find a place to live that is HALF as clean as our country and allows the freedom that we still have. And Texas is one of the STRICTEST when it comes to our land, air, and water!
    I am so sick of people crying about the environment… who really wants to live to be 80 years old with a broken down body anyway. Compliance is why almost ALL of our manufacturing jobs have disappeared elsewhere! We are one of the most over compliant countries in the world and one of the most double, triple, quadruple taxed…. Get over it already!


      TCEQ not so hot on continual compliance assurance; EPA not been satisfied with TCEQ permitting/enforcement for years; fine, YOU check out before you can collect SSA, and we’ll all thank you for not being a burden in your old age…

    • creekboy


    •  Your response has to be one of the stupidest and most irresponsible I’ve seen so far on this topic.  I’m no flaming environmentalist, but hey, if you have no desire to have reasonably clean air, water and land, that’s your choice but you do not have the right to drag the rest of us along because of your ignorance.  No, Texas does NOT have the strictest standards for air and water quality, check the stats.

      And if you believe “Compliance is why almost ALL of our manufacturing jobs have disappeared elsewhere”, I’ve got some lovely land in Florida to see you.  That is a completely ignorant statement.  Turn off Fox, kk?  Oh, yah, your “tax” statement was ignorant and factually incorrect also.  Guess you blew it all around.

  • Visule

    Major point: it is Canada’s Tar Sand Oil not ours.  Once the Pipeline is built, Keystone can export the Tar Sand crude at market rates (which they don’t get being landlocked in Alberta) or sold to the many refineries in Houston.  Either way jobs are created and energy supplies are diversified.

  • Florian Schach

    The Keystone Pipeline project has
    had several environmental concerns attached to it. But, the TransCanada corporation
    has taken more than a few measures to try and prevent these environmental
    disasters from occurring in the past and will probably do so more going
    forward. This project with the prospect of creating a great number of jobs and even
    being a bridge to our future is almost too great to turn down (http://bit.ly/ytP77z)
    . Therefore when we look at the environmental concerns we should also
    strategize what the best method is for building the pipeline so that we can not
    only start providing people with jobs but also getting back to a normal state.

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