Archive for January, 2010

Otter Creek: We’re not done yet.

On December 21st the Montana State Land Board opened the bidding process to lease the coal beneath Otter Creek. All bids are due by the end of the day on February 8th. By the 9th we should know what kind of bids were recieved. At the next Land Board meeting, on February 16th, the decision to accept or reject a bid will be made. Three things could happen:

1. The Land Board recieves the full asking bid of $.25/ton of coal and approves (or rejects) the lease right then and there.

2. The Land Board recieves a bid of less than the asking price, under $.25/ton. They then debate whether to reduce the price and accept (or reject) the under-bid.

3. The Land Board recieves no bid at all. They then debate whether to lower the asking price or reject leasing Otter Creek altogether.

Through all this, there is one important thing to remember: the Land Board made the decision to open the bidding process thinking that Montanans didn’t care about Otter Creek, that it wasn’t important to us.  On December 21st the Land Board heard more public testimony in opposition to the Otter Creek lease proposal than it had for any other single issue…ever.

After the meeting, their decision received widespread media attention which catalyzed a steady flow of calls to the LB, letters to the editor, and public pressure all touting the danger of leasing Otter Creek. This pressure has had an effect, and we need to keep it up. Call the Land Board and tell them what you think about Otter Creek, write a letter to the editor supporting Denise Juneau and asking the rest to follow her example, and check back here for upcoming actions, protests, and media events.

Background on Otter Creek and the proposal can be found here

If you want to be a part of the planning process for any of this, please stop by our weekly meetings.

Mammoth trucks to invade northern Rockies, advance climate change

Mammoet. Dutch for “mammoth” …and that is exactly what we’re dealing with. Most people in northern Idaho and western Montana have probably heard about the giant trucks that are slated to cross the region on their way to Canada.  Most don’t seem to know much else about it, though, which is not surprising. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the companies involved have been conspicuously quiet about the whole thing. Very little information has yet been made available, despite how soon the project is set to go forward. Inquiries to the MDT have been deflected to the companies and the companies are dragging their feet on reaching out to the public.

Example of Mammoet in action

The trucks belong to Mammoet, a dutch company that specializes in, well… big stuff. They are the ones who lifted the Russian submarine “Kursk” up from the ocean floor, for example. Here in North America they primarily move giant pieces of mining equipment to the Alberta Tar Sands, which is exactly what they have recently been contracted to do. While the world condemns Canada and the U.S. for the countries’ lack of dedication to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and as citizens and sovereign First Nations across Canada fight desperately against further developement of tar sand operations in Alberta, the largest company in the world is quietly planning to spend the next couple of years transporting the devices of its apocalyptic industry across the Northwest.

Example of Mammoet in action

Giant “modules” are being built in Korea and shipped to the Port of Portland, OR. There they will be loaded onto barges for transport up the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the Port of Lewiston, ID.  Then Mammoet trucks take over.

The massive dimensions of the largest of the trucks, at twelve times the size of normal tractor-trailers, require that two lanes be used during transport, which on narrow roads like U.S. Highways 12 and 200 means that the whole road, both directions of traffic, will be shut down while these trucks go through at as little as five miles per hour on hills.

Once these trucks start rolling, it will be virtually impossible to travel anywhere along the route without suffering delays, especially over Lolo and Rogers Passes.  Shipments are expected to occur three to five times per work-week for about a year and a half, including through the icy winter, for a total of over 200 shipments.  By law, traffic can only be held up for ten minutes at a time, but once hundreds of turnouts have been built and countless power lines, signs and traffic signals have been refabricated to allow for these trucks’ massive size, there seems little likelihood that these laws will be enforced against a company (ExxonMobil) with an economy six times the size of Montana’s.

Example of Mammoet in action

For turnouts (places for the trucks to pull over for traffic to pass) to be built, unknown ecological damage must occur.  Of particular concern is the Lochsa River corridor in Idaho, a steep and narrow valley of almost no developement and many groves of old-growth cedar right along the roadside.  For turnouts to occur every couple of miles, as the travel plan demands, they must be built either out into the river or else large portions of mountainside may have to be  carved out.  The impacts of these turnouts on the health of the river ecosystem and the species (some endangered and endemic) that rely on it are as yet unknown.  There is some doubt that a thorough and honest environmental impact assessment will be possible before the project begins if the company intends to stay on schedule.

MDT does not yet know what level of environmental review will be required before issuing the permits, however, Jim Lynch, Director of MDT, has said that only the direct impacts these shipments will have on the state will be considered for issuance.  They will specifically ignore any concerns about the effects of tar sand mining or the oil economy on the global environment. All of these permits combined will provide for each state only a few hundred thousand dollars while the economic impacts of traffic delays may far exceed that.  Modification of the roadways appears to require only a few months of construction –if the initial test run occurs this summer as scheduled (no construction has begun as of this writing). Jobs creation, therefore,  will be minimal and temporary.  The ecological damage caused by road work, not to mention by the Canadian Tar Sands themselves, will be extensive and permanent.

Example of Mammoet in action

In Idaho, and possibly Montana too, the success or failure of the initial test run this summer will determine whether the rest of the permits will be issued (though the turnouts will have to be built even just to make the test run).  While the State sticks its fingers in its ears when confronted with the obvious fact that allowing these shipments to pass through constitutes complicity in climate chaos, it is up to us in the Northwest to do our part, in solidarity with Albertans, to stop this project from going forward.

As more information is made available to the public, we will post it here.  For more background information about tar sand mining, click here.  To learn more about how you can help confront Northwestern states’ complicity in destructive tar sand mining, contact us or check out the Alberta Tar Sands links in our Allies & Resources page.  The only information produced by MDT about this for the public, including the precise route, can be read here.

Stop Tar Sand Mining Now!

The world’s largest, and possibly dirtiest industrial operation has frightening implications reaching far from the northern Canadian forest in which it is centered. As peak oil passes us by and industrial civilization’s thirst for exploitation of fossil fuels continues to grow, northern Alberta, Canada has become host to what is perhaps the greatest organized danger to life on Earth, ever. Old-Growth deforestation, huge levels of climate change-causing carbon emissions, poisoned watersheds, colonial encroachment, damaging social impacts, pipelines and road-building into wild places, wars, toxic wastelands… all in the interest of western materialism and the energy-industry’s profits; with the Alberta Tar Sands at the center. The tar sands are having an impact on the US’s northern Rockies as well (see also: this and this), and Northern Rockies Rising Tide is joining the fight to stop them.

Tar sands (aka, oil or bituminous sands) are mixtures of soil, water and extremely dense petroleum called bitumen. The largest known deposits of tar sand are in northern Alberta, Canada. The Alberta Tar Sands deposits cover an area roughly the size of Florida, under some of the largest old-growth forest left in the world, and they are being dug up.

Tar sands exploitation is the newest and most rapidly growing sector of the petroleum industry, due to dwindling reserves of conventional oil and the relatively young technology required to make tar sand mining profitable. Tar sand deposits can be found around the globe, however Alberta’s deposits are believed to contain as many barrels of crude as the entire world’s reserves of conventional oil (around 1.7 trillion barrels).

Tar sands account for nearly half of Canada’s oil production and, because of increasing production, Canada is now the single largest supplier of oil to the United States. Aside from a small (and declining) tar sands industry in Venezuela, Canada is the world’s only commercial producer of bitumen oil.

The first tar sand mine (Suncor) opened in 1967. The second, the Syncrude mine which began operations eleven years later, is today the largest mine of any type in the world. The third began only in 2003. Today, due to high demand and dwindling supply of conventional oil reserves, there are nearly 100 tar sand projects (comprised of 3200 mining leases, covering an area the size of Maryland) planned in Canada, with $200 billion dollars invested. These operations include not only the mines themselves, but also trans-continental pipelines, refineries, road construction and super-oil tankers and ports for overseas distribution.

First Nations communities downstream of tar sand mines are facing threats to their physical health, the health of their landbase, and their sovereignty. They are reporting increased cases of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, multiple sclerosis and rare types of cancer due to toxic wastes leaching into the waterway from tailings ponds. Also arsenic, at 33 times the acceptable level, is being found in game meats which local First Nations people rely on; as well as some animals being found with tumors and mutations. Hunting is also becoming more difficult as habitat is being destroyed and wildlife disturbed. The tar sands are being developed on land that has never been ceded (formally surrendered) by First Nations, and the communities are neither being consulted nor compensated for the destruction of their lands.

Conventional crude oil is normally extracted from the ground by drilling oil wells into a petroleum reservoir and allowing oil to push out, or else be pushed or pumped out of the ground. (Think Kuwait or Beverly Hills or off-shore oil rigs). Tar sands, however, being as much solid as they are liquid, require more effort to extract. The easiest method is strip mining, though some newer mines heat and dilute the bitumen underground to make it flow easier. Once removed from the ground, bitumen is too viscous to flow through pipelines as conventional crude does. Therefore it is next converted into synthetic oil (called upgrading) to aid transport. These processes can use huge quantities of sometimes scarce water and require so much electricity that one tar sand mine has considered building a nuclear power plant just to power the mine!

Tar sands mining causes an extraordinary, and often permanent, detriment to the environment. Air monitoring near Fort McMurray, Alberta, as well in the areas near tar sand upgraders, has recorded excessive levels of toxic hydrogen sulfide (the gas responsible for “rotten egg” odors), as well as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matters; and one tar sand exploiter, Suncor Energy, received an Environmental Protection Order from the government of Alberta in 2007 as a result. 

Clearcutting old-growth boreal forest.

Surface mining of tar sand irreversibly destroys the land being mined. The mining site is cleared of all vegetation, often old-growth boreal forest, and tar sand developement is the cause of the second-fastest rate of deforestation on the planet behind the clearing of the Amazon rainforest. Then the top 50 meters or so of earth (called “overburden”) is blasted and removed, exposing the tar sand deposit. The largest power shovels and dumptrucks in the world (up to 400 tons, some of which are being shipped through northern Idaho and western Montana) are used to dig up the tar sand deposit, of which about two tons is required to produce just one barrel of oil (about 1/8 of a ton). Just one mine in Alberta has dug up more earth than the Great Pyramid, the Suez Canal, the Great Wall of China and the world’s ten largest dams combined. Surface mining also leaves behind large quantities of toxic chemicals making the land unlivable, even if some semblance of “reclamation” occurs. The Canadian boreal forest is one of the largest old-growth forests left on the planet, and stores more carbon per acre than any other ecosystem anywhere.

In some mines, each barrel of oil requires up to 4.5 barrels of water to produce it. Tar sand operations in northern Alberta use twice as much water as Calgary, a city of over one million people. Most of this water comes from the Athabasca River, which is already facing reduced flow due to shrinking of the once mighty Columbia Ice Fields and Athabasca glacier. Despite attempts at recycling the water, almost all of it ultimately ends up in toxic tailings ponds contaminated with coke, asphaltenes, sulphur, heavy metals and sewage. For every barrel of oil, six barrels of tailings are produced. Tar sand tailings ponds, visible to the unaided eye from space, are so large that one is held back by the world’s third-largest dam. These tailings are often stored dangerously close to the Athabasca river and threaten the health of the whole ecosystem downstream. A recent Environmental Defense report states that nearly 3 million gallons of tailings are already leaking into the watershed each year. With currently-proposed projects, that could grow five-fold within the next couple of years. The ponds are so toxic that in one incident over 500 ducks were killed when the flock landed during migration. Most ponds require noise-makers that deter waterfowl from landing, but some 8000 birds are oil-soaked and killed each year in the ponds. It is believed that over the next few decades, some 160 million birds will die from habitat loss and mistaken contact with tailings ponds.

Communities near the tar sands, who supposedly benefit from jobs created by the industry, are experiencing increased levels of substance abuse, rape & family violence, as well as increased housing costs and decreased housing availability due to the influx of thousands of people coming to work at the tar sands. Homelessness in Edmonton, the nearest large city, increased 19% in 2006 due to Canadian internal migration occurring faster than the city can grow its social services and housing infrastructure. Fort McMurray, the largest town in the tar sands area, has the highest suicide rate for 18-24 year old men in Canada and lacked 70 out of 72 quality of life indicators in one ranking. Oil companies are now beginning to more heavily use guest-worker programs, undermining the ability of unions to influence work conditions, and exploiting the people traveling to Canada to work the tar sands.

Tar Sand Operations

Tar sand mining emits even more climate change causing greenhouse gas (GHG) than conventional oil production, by a factor of 3 to 1. Not including the emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks when the refined oil is eventually burned, Alberta’s tar sands mines account for 0.1% of global GHG emissions. This is a huge portion when considering it is coming from only 0.0000008% of the Earth’s surface. And the industry is growing! Within the next five years, total GHG emissions from tar sands mining is expected to be 108 to 125 megatons per year.

Carbon sequestration (trapping carbon emissions underground), is often touted as the “green” answer to fossil fuel based industries. However, while up to 90% of emissions from conventional oil production may be trapped and stored with current technology (though it is economically infeasible to do so), only 10% can be trapped from bitumen production. In addition, the first sequestration plant is not expected to be operational until 2030, and oil companies doubt sequestration will be widely used before 2050. The method is untested in the long-term and is not proven to be a permanent solution, as leakage is believed to occur.

Such extreme amounts of electricity are used to mine tar sand that in 2007 one company applied for a permit to build a nuclear power plant near its operations, however, most of the energy comes from burning natural gas. Tar sand mining uses enough gas to heat 3 million homes, and this diversion of resources is causing a return to even dirtier coal-fired electrical generation for domestic use.

Current plans for Canada’s fossil fuel industry will propel the country’s emissions to 44% beyond what it is allowed by the Kyoto Treaty, of which it is a signatory.

courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Since the majority of U.S. imports of oil come from Canada, and the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world is the U.S. military (about 340,000 barrels per day), the Alberta tar sands are literally fueling the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Wars over oil, made possible by oil. Wars on people, wars on the land, wars on ourselves. It is time to stop the Tar Sands!