Tar sands — a toxic nightmare

June 19, 2010
Canada’s tar sands have been called the most destructive industrial project on the planet. Image: Atom.smasher.org

The tar sands mining project in Alberta, Canada, is possibly the largest industrial project in human history and critics claim it could also be the most destructive.

The mining procedure for extracting oil from a region referred to as the "tar sands," located north of Edmonton, releases at least three times the CO2 emissions of regular oil production procedures and will likely become North America's single largest industrial contributor to climate change.

Most of the oil produced by the project will likely be consumed by the US — a country that, along with Canada, is already heavily invested in the project.

The project is operated by Imperial Oil, whose parent company ExxonMobil Canada has a long-term production goal of more than 300,000 barrels of bitumen (extra heavy oil) a day.

The tar sands are mixtures of soil, water and bitumen, and northern Alberta contains the largest known deposits, with an area roughly the size of Florida that lies under some of the largest old-growth forest remaining in the world.

It is believed the area contains 1.7 trillion barrels of oil — an amount equal to the world's currently known reserves of conventional oil.

The exploitation of the tar sands is the most rapidly growing sector of the petroleum industry and is speeding up as the price of oil increases, making the project more appealing, given that it currently requires more energy to extract the oil than the oil itself provides.

The tar sands project has raised great concern from environmental groups around the world.

“The tar pit sands project is one giant nightmare”, said Brett Haverstick of the group Friends of the Clearwater, an Idaho charity that defends wild lands and biodiversity.

“There are major social, environmental, economic, legal and political consequences. And it's just not a local issue, but global.

“This project affects every living being, human or non-human on the planet. The carbon footprint is enormous, possibly bigger than anything we've seen before.”

Haverstick feels that “in a time when we are supposed to be working toward reducing our carbon footprint, scaling back the amount of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere and searching and developing renewable energies, this project instead puts us back another hundred years, if not more.”

In terms of carbon emissions footprints, “tar sand mining may be the filthiest form of energy production we know of.

“And that's not including the ecological damage that occurs when drilling for this stuff. Who knows what type of condition the remaining boreal forest in Alberta, Canada, and the surrounding watershed will be in when this project is completed in 50 years.

“It will be on par with, if not much worse, than mountain-top removal projects occurring in West Virginia right now.”

There are about 100 tar sand projects (made up of 3200 mining leases, covering an area the size of Maryland) planned in Canada, with at least $200 billion already invested.

Nick Stocks said: “The tar sands themselves have been called the most destructive industrial project on the face of the planet for good reason.” Stocks is co-founder of the group Northern Rockies Rising Tide, a group that promotes community-based solutions to the climate crisis and takes direct action toward confronting what it sees as the root causes of climate change.

“The devastation of this mining to the Alberta boreal forest, the Athabasca river, the Athabasca delta and their communities ... have been well documented.”

Indigenous communities both downstream from the tar sand mines in Canada and along the proposed lorry route of the mining equipment are concerned about threats to their physical health, sacred sites and the health of their land base.

Some indigenous people who live downstream from the tar sands mines in Canada have reported higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, multiple sclerosis and rare types of cancer due to toxic waste leaching into the waterway from tailings ponds. Arsenic, at 33 times the acceptable level, has also been found in game meats that indigenous people rely on. Some animals have been found with tumours and mutations.

The mining of the tar sands, being as much solid as they are liquid, requires great effort. The easiest method is strip-mining, though some newer mines heat and dilute the bitumen underground to make it flow better.

Once removed from the ground, bitumen is too viscous to flow through pipelines as conventional crude does, so it is converted into synthetic oil to aid transport.

These processes use huge quantities of water and require so much electricity that one tar sand mine has considered building a nuclear power plant to power the mine itself.

Research shows that tar sands mining causes an extraordinary and often permanent damage to the environment. Air monitoring near Alberta’s Fort McMurray, for example, has recorded excessive levels of toxic hydrogen sulphide, as well as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matters.

Tar sand exploiter Suncor Energy received an environmental protection order from the government of Alberta in 2007 as a result.

Haverstick and Stocks say their groups, along with many others, intend to fight the project. "We hope to build a viable opposition that will take many different forms of action to stop them," said Stocks.

[Reprinted from the Morning Star www.morningstaronline.co.uk.]


According to a new report, the cumulative impact of developing Canadian tar sands over the next 30–50 years could be as high as 166 million birds lost, including future generations. Written by scientists from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Boreal Songbird Initiative, and Pembina Institute, the peer-reviewed paper suggests that avian mortality from continued development of Canada’s tar sands would provide a serious blow to migratory bird populations in North America. Fuel Oil

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