The Tar Sands

Apologies for the few weeks of silence. Moving cities again, combined with the beginning of a new term, meant hardly any writing time! I should be back into a regular routine now, though. Enjoy.

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama seemed serious about climate change action. He promised an 80% reduction in American greenhouse gas emissions by 2050: a target which, if reached, would go a long way in solving global warming. Therefore, when he won the election, citizens concerned about climate change cheered the world over. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” Obama said following his inauguration. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories…All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

This cheery picture of a renewable energy economy is about as far away as one can get from the energy source Obama is now considering supporting: tar sands. Concentrated in Western Canada, the tar sands are an unconventional, and very dirty, form of oil. They produce more carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy than regular petroleum – in fact, if you take transport and refinery into account, they’re slightly worse than coal. If we aggressively develop the tar sands, we will have no hope of stabilizing climate change at a reasonable level.

The problems don’t end there. Extraction and refinement takes over an incredible amount of land that would otherwise serve as vital habitat for wildlife. Additionally, tar sands are loaded with toxic substances such as heavy metals, which are removed during the refinement process. These byproducts inevitably leach into the water system, endangering the health of nearby First Nations communities and the viability of entire ecosystems in the boreal forest.

In my opinion, this is Canada’s most shameful practice. A short-term spike in jobs will lead to centuries of social, environmental, and economic damage. Sadly, many of our politicians think this trade-off is acceptable.

Now, industry is hoping for an American partnership in tar sand development. The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would run all the way from Alberta to Texas, so tar could be refined in the US. Imagine the habitat destruction and pollution required to construct this pipeline. Imagine the consequences of a leak in the pipe. And imagine how much more of the tar sands will get dug up and burned if there is a demand from the US.

Luckily, this pipeline requires special permission from the president in order to be built. There is no deadlock in Congress to worry about; no concessions to make for the Tea Party. It’s all down to Obama. Will he keep his campaign promises?

How could someone promise to “restore science to its rightful place” while making decisions that every line of science predicts will endanger our future? How could someone make specific goals and targets, then turn around and take actions that guarantee these goals will fail? If the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, it won’t be by the Obama we knew in 2008.

350.org, a nonprofit climate change action group, is coordinating a movement pressuring Obama to reject the pipeline. It includes typical lobbying efforts, including a petition signed by over 600 000 people, but is centered on a two week stretch of civil disobedience. Waves of volunteers formed a peaceful sit-in on White House property, and were willing to get arrested to draw attention to the issue. As of the sit-in’s conclusion on September 3rd, a total of 1,252 people had been arrested, including top climate scientist James Hansen, environmental journalist Bill McKibben, and author Naomi Klein.

Others condemned the pipeline at more of a distance. Recently, nine Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, wrote to Obama, pleading with him to reject the proposal. Youth leaders from the PowerShift conferences threw in their support. Unsurprisingly, Al Gore denounced the pipeline, calling it an “enormous mistake”.

Is civil disobedience the answer? Will it build up the movement, or polarize it? If governments don’t listen to letters, why would they pay attention to protests? But if they don’t listen to this, why should we trust them at all?

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14 thoughts on “The Tar Sands

  1. So far signs seem to point to Obama approving the pipeline (i.e. a government report saying that the pipeline would have acceptable environmental safeguards, virtually ignoring the climate impact in the process, and Chu making much the same comments). Plus Obama just backed off on improved ozone standards for no apparent reason, so it appears environmental issues are plummeting down his priorities list. If he thinks he can sell the pipeline as “job-creating”, he’ll approve it.

    So we need something to convince Obama to change his thinking, and thus the civil disobedience is a necessary action. It may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly worth a shot, considering the potential impact of the pipeline:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/tar-sands-impact-on-climate-change.html

  2. This is a very good summary of this issue. I too, have been watching it unfold closely. I hope and pray that Obama rejects the proposal… to do otherwise will shake my very foundation of hope…

    I live in Alberta, and these oil sands are something I worry about a lot. Alberta is putting all their economic eggs in one dirty basket. What if the bottom falls out and the world doesn’t want our dirty oil? What happens then? In addition, the area up there looks like a dead zone, forests peeled back, now devoid of life. Water monitoring is VERY lacking, funded by the oil companies themselves. Caribou should be put on the endangered list, but the Alberta government will not do it, they would like to cull wolves instead. Even the federal government thinks that the provincial rivers plan is not adequate. Who will stand up and protect this land, if not us? I hate that we are the ones pushing this oil, this harm, this destruction.

    Please don’t take our oil Obama. PLEASE.

  3. Appropriate safeguards: Don’t actually monitor anything and state that there has always been some background contamination. Members of the Nations suddenly getting sick, natural, people get sick. Statements that sickness has never been this bad. that is just anecdotal.

    Ain’t it a shame we have no money to determine base rates of pollution and health.

    As for Obama “Yes we can, er could have, but is was a little bit hard” The republicans (corporate owned) have got more of their agenda through than if they had been in power: More drilling under Obama than Bush.
    Obama-care could have been written by the Health industry.
    Bush’s wars still being fought.

    Me cynical? Maybe just a little bit. I am beginning to thing George Carlin was right about modern democracy.

  4. I see no reason to trust the government, given that they’re pretty consistent in serving big business’ interests over the public’s interests. But what alternative to civil disobedience is there, other than outright revolution? If these protests aren’t effective, how can we conclude our system is anything other than downright suicidal?

    I wrote a post on this today as well, which mostly focuses on those advocating for the pipeline, and also on the phase two proposed by Bill McKibben.

  5. Mmmm, the Alberta/Saskatchewan “tar” sands. Been leaking oil into the waterways for at least 5000 years. My old, but fully functioning sniffer says there are a few problems with this column.

    Concentrated in Western Canada, the tar sands are an unconventional, and very dirty, form of oil.

    Dirty oil, interesting term, why is it dirty? I have never heard anyone explain the process that makes our Canadian oil from the Fort McMurray area of Canada, dirtier then the oil from the Middle East. Where a large part of the profits go to assisting those who would love to destroy our country, our whole western world. If I am hurting feelings, that is too bad. I have a feeling that should this note get through the review process, there will be concerted attempts to bruise my feelings. Such is a free society, and I am glad I live in one.

    If we aggressively develop the tar sands, we will have no hope of stabilizing climate change at a reasonable level.

    If I understand this correctly, if we keep expanding the mining of this resource, we will produce so much carbon dioxide that we will do irreparable harm to the climate, no matter what reduction programs are in place in the rest of the world.

    The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would run all the way from Alberta to Texas, so tar could be refined in the US.

    I agree, this should never happen, the refining should take place in Alberta/Saskatchewan, and so the jobs and the profits remain in Canada. That is the sort of thing that just grows and grows, creating wealth. However, if the pipeline is rejected, you will see that oil going to China. It is going to go somewhere.

    The problems don’t end there. Extraction and refinement takes over an incredible amount of land that would otherwise serve as vital habitat for wildlife. Additionally, tar sands are loaded with toxic substances such as heavy metals, which are removed during the refinement process. These by-products inevitably leach into the water system, endangering the health of nearby First Nations communities and the viability of entire ecosystems in the boreal forest.

    Where to start, the amount of land is an excellent point. Don’t forget to take into account the reclaimed land; while we are not talking about a few townships here, we are not talking about hundreds and hundreds of square miles either. Lets keep perspective. As to the leaching situation, the illegal building of the WAC Bennett dam back in the fifties and sixties did and is continuing to do more harm to the ecology of the region and the health of the First Nations population, then the sands operation will do. There have been at least two studies I believe, that have examined the problems in the Peace/Athabaska area.
    For those of you reading this that have never been on a Northern reserve, I strongly suggest you go to one. There are a few you can drive to. Allow me to suggest Whitedog reserve, north of Kenora. A fine example of a reserve in a Boreal forest setting. Oh yeah, almost forgot, that area has been leaching oil etc. for thousands of years, Check out Peter Ponds diaries.

    Is civil disobedience the answer? Will it build up the movement, or polarize it? If governments don’t listen to letters, why would they pay attention to protests? But if they don’t listen to this, why should we trust them at all?

    It has been my experience after watching civil disobedience for over 60 years, that there is no real change. Human frailties always enter into the play and derail the fine pipedreams. Do governments listen to these protests? Of course they do. Then they pay them a little lip service (think of campaign promises) and move on to the next sound bite.

    If the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved, it won’t be by the Obama we knew in 2008.

    I almost hate to say it, but the Obama you got in 2008, wasn’t anywhere near the Obama you thought you were going to get. Media hype does that sometimes.

  6. Why call the tar sands dirty? Lets start here:
    http://www.sierraclub.org/energy/factsheets/tarsands.asp
    Tar sands are nasty, really sour, lots of sulfur. The sulfur stripped out in the initial process is just being stockpiled. Maybe not mountains yet, but big hills.

    The resultant oil is still high sulfur, that cannot be processed by many refineries. The gasoline fraction from the oil is noticeably lower than from ordinary crudes. It is in no way light sweet crude, your fathers generation would not have called it oil.

    The amount of pollution from the seeps is miniscule compared to the pollution from the mines.

  7. Ahhhh yes, the Sierra club, well know for its objective examination of both sides.

    Any oil is nasty, grimy, smelly, so called sweet crude is not sweet to the senses, believe me. I have gotten my hands dirty over the years.

    Really sour? All crude oil contains some hydrogen sulphide gas. This is what gives it that famous rotten eggs smell. It will kill you. Plain and simple, in large concentrations, known as sour gas or oil all workers wear protective gear all of the time. The oil industry loses workers every year to this problem, most of them dieing because they did not follow simple and necessary rules. Oil sands are not sour, by the strictest definition of the word. Btw, driving through most oil producing regions of the world, you will encounter that “rotten egg “ smell constantly.

    Almost all oil and gas contains some sulphur. This is extracted during the refining process, and is a valuable by-product that is sold on the open market. It is not unusual to see stockpiles of sulphur near many refineries and gas cleaning sites. Suncor claims to be producing .005 tons of sulphur per barrel of crude oil. .005 tons is say 10 pounds (4.5 Kg) per barrel. By far the majority of this sulphur produced is exported. The balance is processed here in Canada. The resulting oil can be processed by many if not most refineries without further modification.

    The term “light sweet crude” can be misleading. I will let you discover that on your own. However, there are different grades of oil, just like there are different grades of coal. Some carry more energy per Kg then others, just as some flow easier than others, but they all contain the lighter fractions we need. There is a price difference when purchasing these crude oil varieties, based on the difficulty of moving, storing and extracting the wanted products. My fathers generation called it tar, and they knew it contained great stockpiles of energy. They just wanted to find ways to get at it. Next time you look around you, be glad they did. You are much better off, thanks to our fathers. I just wish we could be doing the final refining on Canadian soil, for obvious reasons.

  8. Transportation is about 20% of carbon emissions right? Even with tar sands being dirtier, will it appreciably change that number? So the no hope of stopping global warming qualifier really only applies if there is a substantial change in the electric generation emissions and people kept using the tar sands. Otherwise, these tar sands are not changing the carbon profile substantially with regards to stopping global warming, nor does opening the pipeline mean it can’t be closed.

  9. Hmm the difference between oil and coal in carbon emissions is more quantity than quality. We are talking about a 20% difference, so having the tar sands be closer to coal than other oil does not change the carbon picture much.

    Also, keep in mind the old Dilbert comic strip about how oil is a fungible commodity. Even if the pipeline is not built, the tar sands will be used.

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