Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oil sands, tar sands; tar sands, oil sands--let's call the whole thing awful

With so many Americans facing a summer characterized by "staycations" (if they're lucky to even have homes in which to stay), job-hunting, and general belt-tightening, it's understandable that they'd be more receptive to something--anything--that promised to keep gas prices from soaring again, even if it meant turning their heads for a while so as to avoid seeing the toxic morass of trouble waiting for them not too far down the road. Few of us enjoy being reminded about the dirty realities attendant to our oil addiction on a good day--and in a good economy. When the chips are down, though, and the clever PR folks have been busily weaving their magic, even the sticky, corrosive stuff from Alberta might start to sound good to us--Hey, it's from Canada, our friends. It will increase the world's oil supply and that will lower the price!

Or something. Gain an understanding of the nature of the beast--the commodities market, that is, and the manner in which speculators can drive prices upward, as well as the way other oil-producing nations open and close the spigots--and you'll be quickly disabused of any Econ 101-style fantasy. But who's got the heart to do even that much, and can we be blamed, really? I mean, what options exist beyond the gasoline-powered internal combustion engines that power the cars we're all currently trying to cut down on driving?

Yes, more and more automakers are offering electric and hybrid-electric cars, and I'm excited about the ones yet to come. But even taking into account any modest tax incentive, these vehicles don't come cheap, and for the millions of Americans who are currently unemployed or underemployed, buying a new car of any kind is simply not feasible.

And yes, there are public transportation options for some, depending on where you live. In the vast majority of Florida, for example, it's extremely difficult to get around without a car. Few areas in this state were built on a model of sustainability, with a mind toward residents being able to walk to work, school, and grocery stores. For the most part, our peninsula is stuffed like a Christmas stocking with huge, ungainly suburbs, all of them laced together by increasingly threadbare ribbons of horrifically crowded roads and interstate highways.

So, then, at this point in time and given the current economic climate, a lot of us are going to be ripe for a good PR nudge by Big Oil. And boy, are the spinmeisters working overtime in their efforts to overcome the facts about the proposed tar sands pipeline, excuse me, oil sands pipeline. (I imagine the phrase tar sands is being phased out due to its propensity to evoke mental images of tar on our sands, fresh in our minds thanks to the catastrophic BP spill last year.)

As I wrote last month, the Keystone XL Pipeline is a project so encumbered by serious threats--to American water tables, to ecosystems, to human lives, and, thanks to the resource-greedy, carbon-spewing process of refining tar sands, to the future of the planet itself--it is almost surreal. It's a horror show that puts the summer theatre lineup to shame; coming soon, only it's dead real.

Forewarned is forearmed, so here's a sampling of information (emphasis mine) about this nightmare of a proposed oil project, and at the bottom, you'll find a link to the House of Representatives along with the address of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I hope you'll take a few moments to write to them. It bears repeating: the United States should to be investing heavily in sustainable and renewable energy resources, not enabling further dependence on a fuel that is slowly killing us--or, as is the case with tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline, that will likely sicken and wipe out unknown numbers of lifeforms, including human beings, on an accelerated schedule.

Tar sands oil--that is, the production and exporting thereof--is undeniably bad for Canada:
Oilsands deposits underlie three main areas in northeastern Alberta, totalling about 140,000 square kilometres.

That's about the size of the state of Florida, a comparison often used by U.S. environmentalists to suggest how much boreal forest would be ripped up. But not quite. About 80 per cent of the oilsands will be mined in-situ, a technique that uses injected steam to soften the bitumen underground and pump it out. The gaping, smoky open pits often equated with oilsands mines will sprawl across about 500 square kilometres.

That doesn't mean the rest of the region will remain pristine. Even in-situ mines require roads, pipelines and other facilities that will chop the forest into smaller and smaller blocks and destroy habitat for animals that require large undisturbed areas. One U.S. scientist has estimated that those effects will reduce songbird populations by 166 million birds over the next 30 to 50 years. [...]

The Alberta Cancer Board has found cancer rates about 30 per cent higher than anticipated in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan, with blood and lymphatic cancers double the expected rate. The board didn't consider possible causes.

Government air-quality monitoring has found no increases in carbon monoxide, ozone, particulates or sulphur dioxide in Fort McMurray, the largest community in the oilsands area. Nitrogen dioxide and hydrogen sulphide have increased slightly. In some streams, PAHs are already at levels toxic to fish embryos. However, a fish with two jaws caught last spring downstream from the oilsands was later found to be a goldeye showing signs of a natural after-death phenomenon.

What about those tailings ponds?

The oilsands use a lot of water and much of it ends up in vast tailings ponds, which are now the size of the city of Vancouver, and they're growing. The ponds are toxic. About 1,600 ducks tried to land in one last year and most died, covered in oily sludge. The ponds are separated in some places from the Athabasca River only by large earthen dams. One study suggests that up to 11 million litres of tailings leak out every year, although Alberta says any leaks percolate harmlessly into bedrock.

Sediment in the ponds has been very slow to settle and dealing with it is one of the industry's most stubborn problems. Companies have proposed "capping" the ponds with clean water and leaving them, but Alberta's energy regulator recently said mines must start converting to dry tailings by the summer of 2011. Of nine oilsands projects that filed proposals to do that, only two plan to meet the timeline, although the regulator promises the timeline will be enforced.

How significant are greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands?

It depends on the comparison. The oilsands are Alberta's second-largest industrial emitter - coal-fired power plants are bigger. One oft-repeated statistic is that all the greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands account for only five per cent of Canada's total emissions and 0.1 per cent of global emissions.

Environmentalists respond that any one project which shows up on a global scale is significant, period. They also point out that the oilsands are Canada's fastest-rising source of greenhouse gases.
Tar sands oil and the Keystone XL Pipeline would be undeniably bad for the United States, its citizens, and its environment:

[Nebraska cattleman Randy] Thompson apologizes for becoming animated, but says he's about done using politically correct language where the Keystone XL project is concerned.

Though he is a lifelong conservative and registered Republican, Thompson had never written so much as a letter to the editor or contacted a single politician in his life until agents for TransCanada first notified him, three years ago, that his property lay in the path a proposed $7-billion crude oil pipeline.

Now he is at the centre of a high-stakes fight over Keystone XL, which would transport up to 900,000 barrels per day of oilsands bitumen from northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The long-delayed pipeline project has been under intense scrutiny amid persistent concerns - raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state legislators and private landowners - about the dangers posed by a possible spill of Canadian crude along its 2,700 kilometre route.

The U.S. State Department has the authority to grant a 'presidential permit' approving construction, and has indicated it will make a decision by the end of 2011 on whether Keystone XL is in America's national interest. [...]

As the project is currently planned, Keystone XL would run directly over the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies Nebraska with 83 per cent of the water used in irrigation and 78 per cent of the state's public water supply.

Moreover, the pipeline would cut a swath through Nebraska's Sand Hills, the largest sand dunes complex in the western hemisphere, where soil disturbances risk massive "blowouts" and erosion that can take decades to repair.

TransCanada has waged an intense campaign - via mass-media advertising campaigns and lobbying in the corridors of the state legislature in Lincoln - to convince Nebraskans the pipeline will be both safe and an economic boon to the state. But public skepticism has grown following a series of leaks on TransCanada's existing Keystone 1 pipeline, which became operational in June 2010.

One rupture in a pipe fitting last month left a 20,000-gallon mess at a TransCanada pumping station in North Dakota.

"I am appreciative we will have jobs and revenue derived from the pipeline, but I really have an issue with the route that it has taken," says Tony Fulton, a Republican state senator.

"There is no other place on the planet like our Sand Hills, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which is precious not just to us but to the country."

The debate over the pipeline in Nebraska has been characterized by charges TransCanada has negotiated in bad faith, using arm-twisting tactics to coax landowners into granting right-of-way easements to build the pipeline.

Thompson says he was warned, in his very first discussions with TransCanada's agents, that rejecting the company's offer of compensation would prompt it to seek an eminent domain order to condemn his land so the pipeline could proceed.

Some U.S. lawmakers are concerned, if not alarmed, and have called for further review of the pipeline's potential for disaster while questioning the currently weak state of regulatory oversight, facts that even an industry-friendly outlet is admitting:

U.S. Congressmen Henry Waxman, the leading Democrat on the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee, is worried that regulatory oversight isn’t keeping up with an increasing amount of diluted bitumen being transported via U.S. pipelines. "I'm concerned that the industry is changing, but the safety regulations are not keeping up with the changes," he said at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. "That could be a recipe for disaster down the road."

Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defense Council said at the hearing, "It is in the public's best interest for our pipeline safety for regulators to evaluate the risks that high volumes of heavy, corrosive and abrasive crudes, such as diluted bitumen, will have on the U.S. pipeline."

A number of pipeline accidents in the U.S. Midwest have some questioning whether diluted bitumen may be to blame. TransCanada's existing Keystone pipeline leaked 10 barrels of oil, due to a faulty fitting at a Kansas pump station last month. That accident followed a 500-barrel spill at a pump station in North Dakota in early May.

The committee last month passed a bill requiring the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to study the impact of diluted bitumen on U.S. pipelines.

Even Republicans think the issue should be investigated. "I think it is something we need to look into," said Republican Representative Joe Barton.

However, President of the Association of Oil Pipelines Andrew Black disputes any claims that diluted bitumen is contributing to pipeline corrosion, saying, “Diluted bitumen has been moved through pipelines for many years.” [Well, then, that settles it!--DNT]

Yet, a large number of the Usual Suspects (aka the House Republicans), are pushing hard for prompt approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline:
House Republicans are attempting to fast-track the controversial pipeline that would carry crude oil from tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada, across the US heartland and down to refineries in Texas.

The House Energy and Power Subcommittee approved a bill that requires President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone Pipeline by November 1.

If he were to do so, he would have to over-rule demands for further review by the Environmental Protection Agency and ignore the protests of local communities that would be affected along the 1,700-mile pipeline route.

House Republicans seem bent on upping the nation's consumption of tar sands oil, presumably to reduce oil imports from the MidEast.

The strategy is blind to the environmental consequences of tar sands production, which has an environmental and emissions footprint that is several times larger than traditional crude oil.

The increased impact is due to the large amounts of energy, water and solvents needed to separate the crude oil from sand with which it is mixed in geological deposits.


To find your House reps, click here.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520


Also at Dirty Hippies


  1. My previous comment disappeared, but otherwise love the new look, especially the yummy lavender-blue-hydrangea color!

    Not about the tar sands, but another potential environmental disaster:


  2. Oh, and re Tim DeChristopher and his heroic yet sure-to-be-severely-punished action:


  3. Deborah--Nice redesign--You threw me for a loop since my computer was away today for a memory-add on, and when I got it back--voila! :^)

    Remarkable work on this horrifying subject which as I mentioned to you, seems to be flying well under the radar. I'd like to forward your piece to a number of people. Would that be OK with you?

  4. Nancy, feel free to share it with anyone you like. The more people who gain awareness, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Glad you like the new look!

    (P.S. As you may have noticed, there is now a handy sharing tool at the bottom of each post, so readers can put it on Twitter, Facebook, etc., or email it.)

  5. Tar Sands Action:

    We’re planning a peaceful protest in Washington DC this August to defuse the largest carbon bomb in North America.

    With people power and time-tested tactics, we’ll escalate the movement and stop the Keystone XL pipeline to the Canadian tarsands.


  6. Deborah--Here's a link to the first piece I've seen published here locally (inland PNW) about what is already well underway; the emphasis of the reportage is on how much the Chinese market will drive policy re this "energy development" reboot. Unfortunately, if you open the link, you won't get the ghastly photo (dating to 2005) of what this already looks like just on the surface at the Albian Sands project in Alberta. Nevermind the eventual environmental devastation picture.

    As usual, however, it feels as though the horse has left the barn, leaving our under-informed citizenry to try to play catch-up.

  7. Another environmental disaster -- brought to you by some familiar murderous friends . . .

    Dick Cheney's big fracking mess
    How not to protect our drinking water: Prohibit the EPA from regulating new mining technologies