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.
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 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.
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!