STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

Just another weblog

Dirty to the Last Drop

Posted by mhudema on July 13, 2008

Dirty and wasteful to the last drop
Oil sands development is one of the most environmentally wrong-headed ideas ever
The Gazette

In some ways, shipping 61 per cent of our oil and gas production to a foreign country while both Canada and the world is running out of the stuff might be considered a good thing, but you would have to be fairly twisted – or just plain stupid – to go along with the reasoning.

Which just about sums up where Canadians are today when it comes to managing their most vital resource: fossil fuel energy.

In a nutshell, we continue to expand our fossil fuel exports into the United States while our conventional natural gas and crude oil supplies begin to dry up.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, which keeps track of world supplies, at its present rate of production Canada could be out of conventional natural gas in six years. That doesn’t mean every well will have run dry by 2014. That just means we will no longer have enough production to supply our needs. That will pose a horrendous situation both for the millions of Canadians who rely on natural gas to heat their homes and for the industrial sector that uses it to manufacture a wide variety of products, including fertilizer to help grow the cheap food to which we have become perhaps too blithely accustomed.

Because the world is running out of fossil fuels even as consumption increases, major oil companies have almost all flocked to Alberta’s oil sands.

With about 174 billion barrels of proven reserves – second only to Saudi Arabia – it is a source that will allow the party to continue in a business-as-usual manner for at least a few more decades.

The long-term consequences of this attitude, however, will be punishing and will worsen as we expand the tar sands operations.

The mining of the sands has already created the worst environmental calamity this country has seen, and only about two per cent of the sands have been exploited.

With the permission of both the Alberta and federal governments, oil companies are in the process of destroying an area of the boreal forest stretching about 140,000 square kilometres. It’s larger than the state of Florida.

In the process of producing a carbon-heavy oil that is up to five times more greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive than conventional crude, they are destroying a forest that acts as a carbon sink. It constitutes as sort of double body blow to the Earth.

As an energy source for extracting the bitumen from the sands, oil-sand extraction is using an amount of natural gas – a much cleaner fuel – equivalent to that which would heat about one million homes a year. This largely wasteful use of natural gas is slated to increase over the next 10 years by almost 250 per cent – if, of course, they can find enough of the stuff.

Extracting and upgrading bitumen has created tailings ponds that measure, according to Canadian Press, more than 130 square kilometres. They are so large they can been seen from space.

Essentially, they are lakes that contain a combination of water, sand, clay and a host of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, naphthenic acids and high levels of salt, toxic heavy metals like lead and large amounts of sulphur. They are themselves a source of “fugitive” GHGs through the process of evaporation while at the same time leaching their chemical soup into ground water and the Athabasca River.

The oil sands operations emit about 29.5 megatonnes of greenhouse gases each year, which is equivalent to about five million cars and represents four per cent of Canada’s emissions. Those numbers are increasing every year as new projects are brought online and old projects expand. Suncor alone estimates its GHG emissions will more than double by 2012, to 25 megatonnes.

You might think that as a reward for this destruction we would at least be putting a little money aside for a desolate rainy day. Not a chance. We charge the lowest royalties in the world, even with the recent average 20 per cent increases. The lion’s share of profits goes to private investors, most of whom are foreign. What little Alberta and Canada earns from its non-renewable resources is spent as fast as we make it with no consideration for posterity. The sands may be creating jobs and multibillion-dollar capital investments, but the owners of the resource – Canadians – aren’t getting their share of the profits.

So when a study came out last month that showed the U.S. was modifying, expanding and building new refineries to accept 1.9 million barrels a day of raw Canadian bitumen from the oil sands (which is larger than our current tar sands production), it just seemed par for the course. What’s more, Canadian firms are building the pipelines that will transport the bitumen south.

The U.S. will refine our oil and sell back to us and the rest of the world the finished, value-added products. Seems fitting in a world gone mad. The U.S. consumes more oil per day than Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Russia combined.

Yet we continue feeding a beast whose insatiable appetite will ultimately drag us down.

Canadians are living in a fool’s paradise believing the tar sands reflect an abundance of resource and wealth. They don’t. They reflect the reality of climate change, global chemical pollution and the end of the age of fossil fuels.

It’s time we faced this reality. It’s time we notified the Americans that we will no longer feed their voracious demands. It’s time we stopped destroying our environment to extract every last drop of oil. It’s time we prepared for a world without oil.

William Marsden is author of Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care).


© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

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