I and other environmental journalists have been denouncing tar sands for almost a decade, or ever since the Alberta Tar Sands Shell Canada mine began operating, in 2003, after more than two decades of low oil prices.
Tar sand deposits (also called oil sands) are unconventional sources of oil; that is, they can’t be extracted by drilling wells, or even by fracking when oil well production declines.
Instead, tar sands oil recovery requires even dirtier, more polluting processes. These include strip mining, like coal, followed by the use of steam and solvents to “thin” the oil so that it will flow through pipelines. In their natural state, tar sands are bituminous; that is, more like soft coal deposits than oil deposits, and their natural viscosity is made even worse by cold (of which Alberta province has more than its share).
More important, Mark insists, is that the real culprits are not necessarily the companies doing the mining, the investors making it possible, or even the families who live in Ft. McKay and make their living off working the tar sands. The real criminals are oil-addicted American consumers in the lower 48 who simply can’t say no to themselves and their addiction. Because more than half of tar sands oil goes directly into the U.S. economy.
The result? More than 100,000 birds drowned yearly in toxic tar sands tailing ponds, according to the Chicago Audubon Society. And more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide, or CO2 – the greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming – as compared to conventional oil extraction.
In fact, because of the huge – perhaps incalculable – carbon footprint of tar sands, it may be impossible to stay at or near the global warming “holding point”, of 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists say we must if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Other effects of tar sands mining include groundwater pollution, the destruction of the Alberta boreal forest, the pollution in the Athabasca River – which has decimated native stocks of fish and other aquatic creatures – and finally the human health effects, namely cancer from toxic chemicals like mercury and arsenic, and worsened asthma and emphysema from the processing factories’ emissions, to name just a few.
In effect, if oil fields are a toxic nightmare, oil sands – which demand even more water and energy for extraction – are Munchian, and it isn’t difficult to imagine Mother Earth opening her mouth in the sort of howl of horror and disbelief portrayed in Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream.
Which is why the April 2011 announcement, that the U.S. had approved it first tar sands mining operation, struck many of us in the environmental movement as almost apocalyptic. How much more can the Earth, and the continent of North America, take?
Nor is it simply a tar sands mine, in Uintah County, Utah – which owner Earth Energy estimates contains more than 250 million barrels of oil on more than 7,800 acres. It is a pipeline – the TransCanada Keystone XL – to transport that chemical-laden oil to refineries in Texas.
The Keystone XL passes through America’s heartland; through the corn- and grain-growing “breadbasket” that feeds the more than 300 million U.S. citizens, who count on the ready and abundant presence of cereal-grain foods like bread and corn flakes and toasted oats and pasta – and beer.
This pipeline also passes, in places, through wilderness areas like the Ogallala Aquifer, the groundwater reservoir under eight Midwestern states that supports both farmland irrigation and drinking water. It also passes across the Nebraska Sand Hills, one of the nation’s largest and most varied wetland ecosystems, and these are only two of the many pristine wilderness areas the pipeline will desecrate if allowed to operate.
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