Humanity engages in many outrages, against each other, against ourselves, against the hability of our planet. Genocide … hunting species to extinction … CO2 emissions and global warming/ocean acidificiation … And, sadly, there seems to be a tendency toward ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many of these, for many of us. We have our lives to live, the problems before us and the pesky inbox often dominate our thinking and our action over the large, serious problems that don’t necessarily slap us in the face and stand outside, it seems, our ability to impact.
When it comes to ‘out of sight, out of mind’ on energy issues, there is a long list of items. But, when it comes to raping the environment to feed our wasteful energy habits, North America has two extremely egregious examples: mountain-top removal (MTR) and Canadian Tar Sands.
Now roughly accounting for 10 percent of the United States’ oil imports, the processes for transforming tar sands into fuel for America’s gas guzzlers makes traditional oil production (even into ANWR) look benign in comparison. Devastating for the local (water, forests), regional (air pollution, bird), and global (GHG emissions) environment, Tar Sands is the wrong answer to North America’s energy challenges.
For a short time, Andrew Nikiforuk’s excellent Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is available for free download.
Stealthily, for most Americans, Canada became the United States’ largest oil source, surpassing Saudi Arabia. The source of that largess: the so-called “difficult oil” of the Alberta Tar Sands. (Now, the “preferred” term of many is Oil Sands, the same sort of people who prefer to talk about Death Taxes, Sound Science, and Clean Skies.) Let’s place these “Oil Sands” in a context that most of us can understand: think about the tar used to seal gaps on your street. That tar has, typically, a better energy value than the Tar Sands.
To move from this sticky, near surface deposit into your and my gas tanks requires: bulldozing forest to dig up the tar sands (using bulldozers that dwarf the average suburban home in size), using natural gas to heat steam (think massive amounts of water) to heat the tar to 500 degrees or more to extract the “oil”, and processing this still quite direty oil into gasoline. And, left behind, devastation on the forests, polluted water, a wasteland. And, Canada’s other export from this process: enough CO2 to blow through its commitments to the Kyoto Accords.
MTR and the Tar Sands share another attribute: addressing two of our major challenges while horribly exascerbating the third. The 3E Challenge:
There is huge economic value for Alberta in terms of near-term revenue from the investment boom and selling of the ‘crude’ product ripped from Alberta’s land.
Exploiting the Tar Sands seems to offer a ‘democratic’ solution to America’s oil addiction: let’s produce our North American solution with our Canadian allies. It might cost more, but it blows past any concept of ‘peak oil’ for decades to come.
Thus, those whose economic and security myopias are such that they are unable (unwilling) to see the 3E nexus, the Tar Sands seem to be the 21st century equivalent of the Gold Rush’s bonanza. Anyone surprised that they were a favorite of Herman Kahn?
But the environmental impacts?
These are quite literally nearly incalculable. Again, more CO2 emissions per gallon than ’sweet crude’ due to the huge extraction costs (roughly, a Saudi barrel of oil might require 1 barrel of input to get 50 barrels to market. Calculations for the Tar Sands put this somewhere in the range of 1 barrel of energy input equivalent to 2-4 delivered to market). The ‘unlimited’ water resources that end up poisoned. The forests devastated, not to be ‘reclamated’ for untold numbers of years. The …
the steam operations will consume nearly $200 billion worth of natural gas in the next decade and now threaten groundwater throughout the world’s third-largest watershed.
One of the biggest costs of bitumen extraction remains toxic waste. The bitumen mines make ungodly lakes of pollution that are as poorly regulated as coal-mine tailings in the United States. Today, more than a dozen toxic ponds—among the world’s largest impoundments of such waste—now occupy both sides of the Athabasca River.
They contain bitumen, phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanide, and naphthenic acids (carcinogens and fish killers all). When I wrote Tar Sands, these ponds occupied 23 square miles of forest along the Athabasca River. They now cover 50 square miles and contain enough sludge to fill 300 Love Canals. Even Canada’s timid National Energy Board calls the buildup of these leaky ponds “daunting.”
Consider the toxic TVA ash spill in December and multiply this many times over.
Just one year ago, Environmental Defense released Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth. Considering all the damaging projects, all the destructive activities around the globe, that is a quite damning conclusion.
Here are a few facts about the Alberta Oil Sands:
- Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.
- At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing in them.
- Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes in Canada.
- The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
- Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.
- The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas in Canada. By 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada.
The latest National Geographic has an article on the tar sands project.
Literally, $100s of billions of dollars are going into Alberta Tar Sands, money being invested to feed our addiction and feed it in an incredibly devastating way.
Those sort of resources would be (FAR) better spent on helping wean us (the US and us all) from our oil addiction. Would be (FAR) better put to use helping create a prosperous and climate-friendly society.
And, as this is being done to feed the US addiction, the US actually has a good deal to say about what will happen in Alberta.
Setting policy that gasoline sales cannot be based on fuels with a worse CO2 footprint than, for example, West Texas crude would put the Tar Sands off limits. Setting policy
Let’s invest $10s of billions in fantasy technology while allowing (enabling) dirty power production to continue with a hopeful wish that one day, somehow, we’ll have the tools to limit the environmental impact of these dirty fuel sources.
Back to Andrew
With undisciplined consumption, the American people will accelerate and expand this environmental freak show in much the same way they funded Saudi extremism. But if they limit their use, gasoline buyers could transform the project into a temporary supply while the continent rapidly renews its economy with green power.
President Obama faces a stark choice: either end the United States’ slavery to oil or became a slave to the tar sands. If America is serious about lessening its deadly dependence on oil, dirty or bloody, then U.S. dollars must support green energy.
The worst alternative is to get stuck in Canada’s sandbox.
For a short time, Andrew Nikiforuk’s excellent, well-written, and highly recommended Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is available for free download.
NOTE: See, also, Sticky Icky Tar … Canadian Tar Sands and US-Canadian Relations