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!

Background on the Otter Creek Coal Tracts

photo courtesy of the Billings Gazette

The Montana State Land Board, consisting of the five top elected officials in the state and chaired by the Governor, “manages” the use of state-owned land as a source of revenue, most notably to fund schools with.  Any exploitation of public lands bodes well for these politicians, all democrats, because it “benefits the children of Montana”.  The State stands to earn a couple hundred million dollars over the course of several decades by allowing Arch Coal to dig up 1.3 billion tons of coal from under the Otter Creek Valley.

If the 1.3 billion tons of coal are extracted, this will result in 2.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary climate-change causing greenhouse gas, being emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere either during the mining and transport process or when the coal is burned.  This will effectively double or triple the rate of carbon emissions for the state of Montana over the three decades that Otter Creek coal is expected to last if it is mined.

The coal under Otter Creek is rather high in sodium, as coal-ore goes.  There are currently only a few coal-fired power plants in the United States designed to handle this type of coal, so the market for it will likely not even be in the U.S.  Not a problem for Arch Coal, which has already admitted that it plans to ship the coal overseas if that is what it takes to find buyers.

The plan for transporting the coal to market involves construction of the Tongue River Railroad, which would carry the coal approximately 120 miles north to link into the national rail system.  This rail would potentially destroy cultural and archeological sites important to many Northern Cheyenne families who have current and former homesteads along the river as well as cut across many settlers’ pasture lands, fracturing their ranches into two, restricting free access to all parts of their range and restricting livestock and wildlife free access to the river for drinking.  The ranchers would need to install expensive and inefficient irrigation systems to sustain their stock.  The railroad would add toxins and sediments to the Tongue River, threatening the ecological stability of the river, as well as two managed fisheries in particular.  And the traffic from repeated trains passing through settlements, including within feet of an elementary school, would cause extensive and unnecessary hardship on communities.

Many rivers around the globe have already been pronounced “biologically dead” due to release of mine waste (called tailings) containing rocks, metals and poisons into lakes and waterways.  Aquatic plant and animal life are choked with toxic sediment.  Surface mining of coal completely eliminates existing vegetation and destroys biological soil structure, creating a biological vacuum for noxious weeds to take over after the mining ends.  This loss of biological diversity extends to animal life also.

So called “clean coal technology” is a myth, because all other arguments aside, coal is always dirty at the point of extraction.  Blasting of soil and exhaust from machinery degrades air quality near mines.  Sedimentation and runoff of industrial chemicals and acid rock drainage degrade water quality.  And blasting, digging, bulldozing and other mine activities, as well as chemicals and heavy metals left as waste degrade soil quality.  Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2, may be released by mining.

Short-term jobs created by this developement would be overshadowed by the long-term effects on the land, air, water, climate and social health of Montana’s and the whole Earth’s communities.  Financial benefits to Montana’s students have even been snubbed by some of the students themselves, preferring to have an inhabitable planet instead.

On December 21, 2009, the State Land Board voted on whether to lease the public portions of the Otter Creek checkerboard area for coal mining.  Despite heavy public opposition and testimony, the board voted 4 to 1 to lease the land.  Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction (the very department which stood to gain directly from mining Otter Creek), was the lone dissenter.  In her statement of opposition she said, “We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t. We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for the future beneficial use. That is sound stewardship.”

Denise Juneau votes in favor of future generations

Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, showed courage and wisdom in her comments explaining why she voted against the leasing of the Otter Creek Coal Tracts on December 21.  She was the only member of the five person State Land Board to do so.

This is a huge issue for many Montanans. I know we have all heard many arguments, both pro and con, from hundreds of citizens all across this state. I appreciated our public hearings in Miles City and Lame Deer, in addition to all the public comment at our meetings here in Helena. I value all of the input and advice that poured in from many different fronts, tribal, county, business, environmental, political, and industry. This decision is not easy, and I know each of us spent hours reading, discussing, and meeting about this issue and I respect every board member’s vote Monday. After weighing every component and factor, I have come to the conclusion that I must vote “no” on going forward to lease the Otter Creek tracts.

Those who support development might say that I am not meeting my fiduciary responsibility by refusing a simple “yes” vote. A “yes” vote might result in bonus bid funds to off-set general fund obligations of the legislature. It is not that simple, however. A “yes” vote would not necessarily be in the best interests of the school trust beneficiaries. It is time for us to be visionary. We cannot vote as if we have blinders on and only see our present economic picture. We must take lessons from the past 7 generations and also look forward and provide for the interests of the next 7 generations.

Of course there is value in mining the coal, potentially a lot of money over the next 40-50 years, but there is also value in keeping Montana “Montana.” A large part of Montana’s economic history is from extracting non-renewable resources. We are all familiar with Berkley Pit, the mining consequences at the Milltown Dam, and the physical and financial repercussions of the vermiculite mine in Libby.

There is an argument that the immediate value gained in extracting this finite resource might be lost in other, tangible costs to the state and its people, including school children. Montana’s future economy and the sustainable value to the school trust lands could very well be in preserving the land for future beneficiaries. Whether for other purposes or future development, technology continues to advance. The coal is not going anywhere. It is entirely possible that these lands will only become more valuable.

Critics might also say a “no” vote means I don’t support our schools. That is just silly, of course I support our schools. I support our schools so much that I ran for the office that oversees all of our public schools. We need to remember the amount of funding going to our schools is a decision for the legislature, and is not based on this vote. I am not turning my back on money for schools. I am upholding my duty and my responsibility to the children of this great state and saying that the greatest value and the best use of that land should not be determined by this board Monday.

The land board has been diligent in its development of resources and leasing of lands all across this state. We could sell every parcel of state land and log every tree on state lands, but we don’t. We don’t because we want to sustain Montana’s lands for the future beneficial use. That is sound stewardship.

In this case, development is a one shot deal. The determination of the real value of this land should not hinge on this vote. I cannot in good faith vote to disregard the future potential of these lands.

Thank you Governor for allowing me this explanation of my vote Monday.

Montana Land Board opens the door for coal extraction.

  

A protestor on the capitol steps.

 

Helena, MT – The Montana State Land Board, which overseas the use of state lands as sources of revenue for Montana’s schools, paved the way for climate change and environmental destruction in a show of blatant contempt for the democratic process on this winter solstice.  In a “public” meeting at the state capitol the Board, comprised of the state’s top elected officials, including Governor Schweitzer, heard testimony from about thirty citizens opposed to the proposal that the Board allow a checkerboard of public lands in southeastern Montana known as the Otter Creek Coal Tracts to be destroyed by the highest bidder.  Commentors included ranchers who implored the board not to let the ranchers’ lands be cut in two by the Tongue River Railroad (a key component of mine developement plans at Otter Creek), high school students and teachers who flatly stated that they would rather go unfunded than accept money from coal exploitation, environmental groups and individuals.  Northern Rockies Rising Tide was among the attendees. 

A student tells the land board that she doesn’t want their coal money.

Following a short rally on the capitol steps, opponents of the mining plan filled the hearing room with people, banners and picket signs, leading Governor Schweitzer to condescendingly compare the scene to that at a football game and dubbed it “festive”.  It was not a game to the protestors, some of whom looked the Board members in the eyes and went on public record calling mining of Otter Creek “ecocide” and the revenue from it “blood money”. 

After pretending to listen to all the testimony and patronizingly complimenting the youngest of the speakers for participating in the “democratic” process, the Board members read their pre-written statements of support for the motion and cast their votes in favor of mining Otter Creek.  The only dissenter was Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction, the official in charge of the very institution which stood to gain financially from Otter Creek Coal.  While the other Board members hid behind the cover of “responsibility”, saying that the constitution required them to take the money, Juneau took the approach of “accountability” to the students she oversees, choosing instead to try to protect their futures. 

The fight to save Otter Creek is only just beginning.  With this unfortunate first vote, the process of taking bids from coal companies seeking “rights” to the lands is underway.  The highest bidder is expected to be Arch Coal, Inc.  For more mainstream perspective click here

Two Rising Tide activists hold up a banner where it could not be ignored.