Oil sands supporters describe it as a safe, secure source of oil from a stable government. Critics call it the “dirtiest oil in the world.” Dirty or safe, it may be coming our way soon
One of America’s top sources of imported oil is closer than we might imagine. About 20 percent of the United States oil comes from the oil sands or tar sand mines of Canada. This comprises nearly all of Canada’s current oil exports.
Oil from oil sands or tar sands mines was described by U. S. Representative Henry A. Waxman as “the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available,” in a New York Times story this summer.
Environmentalists, local communities and First Nations tribes on both sides of the border agree and are actively campaigning against a proposed pipeline extension from Alberta, Canada to Texas that would carry the synthetic crude from oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. First Nations leaders from the U. S. and Canada met with officials at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Interior and others in Washington D.C. last week to discuss their concerns about the impact of increased oil sands mining on their communities.
“What we wanted to bring is the big picture of how tar sands development is impacting a vast territory in the North — from climate change, to chemicals in our water, to the caribou herds that are becoming endangered,” said François Paulette, a member of the Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 Dene First Nation, and one of three aboriginal leaders taking part in the meetings. “A lot of our people are really concerned.
A large group of Canadian diplomats also journeyed to Washington, promoting oil sands as a safer alternative to other sources. Alberta’s premier, Ed Stelmach told the New York Times that Canada is offering the U.S. a safe, secure supply of oil from a stable government.
The Obama administration is currently considering the Keystone XL pipeline proposal by TransCanada to build the massive pipeline that would pump up to 900,000 barrels of oil sands oil per day to the U. S. A decision on the project is due this fall.
Officials at TransCanada say that the Keystone pipeline system will play an important role in linking a secure and growing supply of Canadian crude oil with the largest refining markets in the U.S. The proposed Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Project is an approximately 1, 661 mile long, 36 inch wide pipeline that would begin in Hardisty, Alberta and extend southeast through Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It would then link with current lines through Nebraska and Kansas to markets in Oklahoma before moving on to a delivery point near existing terminals in Texas.
According to critics, there are problems not only with the pipeline proposal but also with the very notion of mining oil from oil sands in Canada or the U. S.
Although the Keystone XL doesn’t present the risk of a rig blowout such as the BP accident in the Gulf of Mexico, critics warn that American regulators have waived important safety standards for the pipeline according to the New York Times.
They point to the July oil spill in Michigan that resulted from a fracture in the Enbridge Energy pipeline. The spill released nearly a million gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Battle Creek.
An analysis by the Texas -based Perryman Group about the economic impact of the Keystone XL project and an assessment of the benefits of a more stable supply of oil is featured on the TransCanada website. According to the analysis report, local economies within the pipeline route will benefit from increased revenues and business activities associated with construction and enjoy the benefit of increased property taxes. Analyses from the Perryman Group predict that the pipeline project will create 250,348 permanent jobs.
According to critics, however, the danger of oil sands development far outweighs any economic benefits.
Alberta’s Department of Energy describes Alberta’s Oil Sands as the largest source of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia. This source of oil, however, is located under one of the world’s most beautiful and pristine boreal forests in an area that is about the size of Florida. This area in the Athabascan, Cold Lake and Peace River regions lie within traditional First Nation’s territories. In an area where aboriginal communities rely heavily on the land, water and wildlife through fishing, trapping, hunting and gathering, the impact of pollution from the mines is immediate. There has been a three-fold increase in leukemias and lymphomas, seven-fold increase in bile duct cancers since mining began according to Alberta Health Services. These cancers are commonly linked to exposure to petroleum products. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the development of oil sands represents a double barrel threat to the environment. First, producing the oil emits two to three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil and two; the process diminishes one of the best carbon reduction tools on the planet—Canada’s Boreal Forest.
Unlike conventional oil, the bitumen, heavy and viscous oil from oil sands, cannot be pumped directly from the ground. Tar sands must be mined and melted in order for bitumen to be retrieved. Huge three story high shovels dig up the earth to expose the oil sands, transporting it to an extraction plant where a hot water process separates the bitumen from the sand, water and minerals. Open pit mining produces tailings or waste that is diverted into ponds. This waste is toxic to aquatic organisms and mammals. Although Canadian law prohibits the release of such waste directly into the Athabasca River, activists claims that toxic waste leaks into the groundwater.
The alternative in situ method of extraction involves injecting steam into the ground to melt the bitumen from the sands and pumping it to the surface. This method not only requires more energy than open pit mining, but also requires large amounts of water. Although most of the water can be recycled, environmentalists complain that some water remains stranded underground. This process, they claim, continually depletes water resources. Bitumen is much heavier than conventional crude oil and contains various contaminants requiring greater refining than crude oil. According to environmentalists, this refining process, which releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, are major contributors to smog and acid rain.
All of this, critics maintain, presents another dangerous precedent. It encourages more oil sands mining in the United States. The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining gave final approval this month for a tar sands mine in Eastern Utah in the Uintah Basin to be operated by the Canadian based Earth Energy Resource, Inc. The Basin is estimated to contain roughly 11 billion gallons of oil. Water for use in the proposed in situ method of extraction would likely come from the Colorado River Basin.
The Huffington Post cites a World Wildlife Federation report finding that three barrels of water are required to produce one barrel of oil from oil sands.
Living Rivers, an environmental group based in Moab has appealed the decision. For now, the project is on hold.
Living Rivers conservation director John Weisheit told the Salt Lake Tribune, “This is just an inappropriate activity when the nation and the world are trying to adjust to climate change.”