The Athabasca Oil Sands, located in northern Alberta, within boreal forest and peat bogs, covers 141 thousand square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) – an area larger than England – and represents a southern edge of the taiga. The world’s largest biome, the taiga stretches across Alaska, Canada, Sweden, Finland, inland Norway, Siberia, Northern Minnesota, Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Maine, northern Kazakhstan and Japan.
The taiga (Russian for “forest”) is comprised mostly of conifers like fir, spruce and pine. These plants are of immense ecological importance as they sequester carbon, regulate the earth’s climate, and prevent desert encroachment, mud slides, and flooding. Conifers have existed for over 300 million years, twice as long as the flowering plants.
This matters little to the Albertan and Canadian governments. Less than 8% of the taiga enclosed in Alberta’s provincial boundaries is protected from development while more than 50% has been allocated to logging companies for clear-cutting.
When the government introduced its 30 year plan to clear-cut sections of forest in Kananaskis, a grass-roots project called Tag-a-Tree sprang up whereby pieces of wood with the message “Save Kananaskis” were hung on trees in the surrounding area. Ironically, as the project and local awareness gained momentum, the District Conservation Officer threatened to charge people; apparently it is a crime to hang a piece of wood, in the woods, with a message on it saying, “save the woods.”
In addition to mass clear-cutting, the northern Alberta tar sands project (“ground zero for global warming”) rages on. The oil in these tar sands is not found in conventional wells; it is mixed in with the soil. Every barrel of oil produced means approximately forty-five hundred pounds of earth has to be dug up and separated. The extraction process used in this area, which some are beginning to call “Mordor,” requires one barrel of gas and up to eight barrels of water to extract two barrels of crude oil. Every year, 359 million cubic meters of fresh water is taken from the Athabasca River–enough to serve a city of one million people for two years. This water cannot be returned to the rivers, so it goes into artificial lakes, called “tailings ponds” or “byproduct ponds,” which are full of dead water, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, and toxic trace metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all with an oil slick on top. Each cubic meter of crude oil extracted results in three to five cubic meters of tailings that need to be stored. Many of these toxic lakes are so vast that they’re visible from space.
The most dangerous ingredient in these waters is naphthenic acid. Repeated exposure to naphthenic acid can cause liver problems and brain hemorrhaging in mammals. Higher concentrations pose even greater health risks. Another component, alkyl-substituted polyaromatic hydrocarbon, kills or deforms birds, so oil companies fire air guns around the tailings ponds to scare the birds away.
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