Tar Sands

This is an edited excerpt from a forthcoming book by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, tentatively titled "Stop Signs: A road trip through the USA to explore the culture, politics and economics of the car"

Across the globe, sprawling auto-dependent development is pushing oil extraction into increasingly sensitive environments. Far from the "light sweet crude" of the Niger Delta, the heavy oil trapped in Alberta’s tar sands is amongst the filthiest source in the world; with up to three fourths of the final product destined for the US market, tar sands oil extraction has been labeled the most destructive process known to mankind. Viewed from above, the tar sands are as picturesque as a pair of dirty lungs and the stench of gasoline can be smelled for miles. Amidst a tangle of pipes, waste ponds and smoke, an environmental demolition derby of 50 ft, 300-tonne monster trucks roam a wasteland riddled with 200ft deep open pits. Gauged out with dinosaur-sized claws, Athabascan oil is mined not pumped.

Describing the tar sands as "hideous marvels," Globe and Mail columnist, Jeffrey Simpson writes: "they are terrible to look at, from the air or from the ground. They tear the earth, create polluted mini-lakes called tailing ponds that can be seen from space, spew forth air pollutants such as sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide."

"They are voracious users of freshwater," continues Simpson. Extracting the bitumen (crude oil) from the thick and sticky mix of clay, sand, and water is no easy feat and for every barrel of oil extracted, somewhere between two and four and a half times as much water is needed to thin out the mixture and separate the bitumen from the sand. To obtain this staggering volume of water, whole streams and rivers in the region have been drained and diverted. We don’t need Erin Brockovich to tell us something is wrong with the water; sucked out for the extraction process and then spat out again, most of it ends up contaminated with acids, mercury and other toxins. This wastewater has left northern Alberta studded with toxic dumping pools, better known as ‘tailing ponds.’ Not only are the tar sands being blamed for Western Canada’s first ever bout of acid rain, the residues pumped into the Athabasca River have increased cancer rates downstream, particularly among First Nations communities dependent upon the waterway. The history of oil extraction has always been the history of suffering and the tar sands are no exception.

To produce a single barrel of oil, the tar sands extraction process requires two tonnes of sand. In 2003, Alberta’s environment ministry reported that 430 square kilometers of land had been "disturbed" for the oil sands. By summer 2006, that number had reached 2,000 square kilometers, nearly a five-fold increase in three years (even though only 2% of the oil sands – now hailed as one of the world’s largest reserves – had been developed).

Thousands of acres of trees have already been clear-cut to make way for tar sands mining and if current plans unfold, a forest the size of Maryland and Virginia will be eliminated. The decline in forests has led to a major reduction in both the region’s grizzly bear and moose populations, with oil exploration also harming prairie birds and other animal life.

The environmental mayhem so far described is the scant tip of the iceberg. The tar sands represent the biggest increase in Canadian carbon emissions, with every barrel of synthetic oil produced releasing 188 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere. Comparing the greenhouse emissions of a conventional barrel of crude to a barrel of tar sands oil, a New York Times article noted that, "a gallon of gas from oil sands, because of the energy-intensive production methods releases three times as much carbon overall as conventionally produced gasoline." The oil sands are located in and around Fort McMurray (aka Fort McMoney), a region, with a population of 61,000. By 2015, Fort McMurray is expected to emit more greenhouse gases than all of Denmark.

Describing "the rush into the oil sands" a Wall Street Journal analyst writes: "For years, environmentalists have argued that higher gasoline prices would be good for the earth because paying more at the pump would promote conservation. Instead, higher energy prices have unleashed a bevy of heavy oil projects that will increase emissions of carbon dioxide." Rather than deter exploration, however, rising prices have led to increasingly unconventional and hazardous oil exploration exemplified by the Alberta Tar sands.

The tremendous energy required to bring the sand to the surface for separation is largely provided by natural gas. (Oil sands consume about 500 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, an amount likely to increase to 1.25 billion cubic feet daily by 2016. The process is so inefficient that the natural gas required to produce one barrel of tar sands oil could heat a family home for 2 to 4 days. This process uses a relatively clean fuel to assist in the production of a dirtier one, prompting oil analyst Matt Simmons to describes the process as "making gold into lead."

With over a hundred billion dollars projected in oil sands investments between 2006 and 2016, the industry is looking for a long-term, cost-effective energy source. High natural gas costs have the tar sands companies thinking big and looking north. Not everyone is happy about this increasingly sticky situation. "Don’t ruin our land to fuel the U.S. gas tank," demanded Grand Chief of the Deh Cho in response to the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline, which if built would ship natural gas almost exclusively for use in northern Alberta oil extraction.

The natural gas pipeline seems almost benign compared to some of the ideas being floated by some oil companies who are described in the National Post as "warming to the idea of nuclear power as a source for their massive energy needs." This is not the first time nuclear power has been proposed to liberate crude oil from the tar sands. In 1959 California’s Richfield Oil drew a plan approved by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to separate bitumen from sand by detonating a 9-kiloton atomic bomb. It was argued that the heat and energy created by an underground explosion would free the oil from the sand, but after the success of initial tests in Nevada, the idea was shelved due to concern among Canadian officials over the use of the A-bomb.

For more information on the tar sands check out dominionpaper.ca special issue on the topic.

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