Tar Sands must be fought on the sheer dirtiness involved
I suggest it is hard to fight the tar sands via Global warming warnings if we are not also going to fight coal powered electric plants, or to fight tar sands on the economics when the Alberta School of Business (perhaps a bias?) calculated that the tar sands create about C$500 of value-added per tonne of CO2, against C$20-30 from coal-fired power stations, and of course the Chinese oil companies would happily take delivery. While Canada’s Total Oil in 2008 stated that it required an oil price of $90/bbl. for its oil sands project to be economic, the break even has dropped and a few firms (Shell) say $50 is all that is necessary. Which leads to the projection by Canada that the current 1.5 m/d production will increase tp 3.5 m /d by 2025 as easily recovered oil using drills and wells declines in production from its current peak and as 70% of the world’s remaining oil remains in the hands of OPEC, with half of its 30% that is “free oil” being in the tar sands.
So large dollars are being committed to the tar sands, with TransCanada proposing a $7 billion pipeline, Keystone XL, to send 510,000 b/d of Albertan oil to refineries in Texas (a line that would double the amount it currently ships by pipeline), promising $5 billion in taxes to the states over the life of the pipeline but having the governor of Nebraska and one of its senators, both Republicans, joining Nebraskan farmers in expressing concern – but the line has tenative State Department environmental review approval. There are also plans to ship oil to Asia from Canada’s Pacific coast with Northern Gateway, a C$5.5 pipeline but that has stalled as 25% of its path is across First Nations in British Columbia territory who have rejected giving it permission to cross that land because “inevitable” spills, a threat to salmon runs and devastation of the Indian way of life – indeed they point to spills last summer from pipelines in the Midwest owned by Enbridge, the company behind Northern Gateway. Why a pipeline to Texas is proposed when the Midwest refineries are a better end point is explained by noting we are all trying to do the Saudi owners of those Texas refineries a favor – and to move jobs to Texas, not the mid-west.
If we are to stop the tar sands we must focus on the sheer dirtiness of the business. To get at the bitumen, the companies bulldoze wetlands to create vast open-pit mines. Inside them, the world’s largest dumptrucks ferry dirt with tar sands to nearby separation plants, where the tarry soil is crushed and diluted until bitumen can be skimmed off. This needs lots of water and energy, and yields the notorious “tailings”, a residue of sand, unclaimed bitumen, water, clay particles and contaminants. As easy strip mining runs out of targets, the deeper stuff will be drilled for with steam pumped into the ground to melt the bitumen and make it easier to suck up to the surface. While heating the steam burns much natural gas and tar sand CO2 production is projected to increase the increase in abosolute numbers is not that large relative to world production of CO@ and CO2 equivalents. More vivid and easier to get into the mind of the public is how local rivers are threaten, turbot are born deformed and local fish are poisoned (there are horid photos of the mutations in the fish in the Athabasca River that currently the source of water used and the ultimate dumping ground after the holding ponds leak and air polution particles),landscape destroyed, wildlife killed and the air polluted. Indeed airborne emissions from smokestacks on upgraders, which convert the bitumen into synthetic crude oil, are part of the reason for the polution of the Athabasca, the giant river that flows through the tar sands. The toxic lake holding ponds now cover 66 square miles and will keep growing.
Canada’s conservative government refuses to impose regulations requiringing simple off-the-shelf scrubbers to upgraders’ smokestacks – the same as used in the US to capture sulphur dioxide. What regulations Canada does have for dealing with mine tailings have seen little enforcement – the Reagan / GWBush approach to law breaking to help corporations, with the 2013 deadline under current law for a process to be in place for 50% of the tailings likely to be missed, and of course the government has still not proposed rules for the remaining 50%.
While tar sands’ CO2 emissions from extraction through to refining (“well to car tank”) show up as up to three times more carbon-intensive than other fuels used in the USA, the “well to wheels” reports (counting emissions from cars’ exhaust pipes) show tar sands as 5-15% dirtier, because most CO2 comes from burning the oil, not digging up the oil. But coal fired power plants CO2 problems dwarf these numbers, so I suggest Global warming may not be an effective talking point. But the horrid effect on the environment – the sheer dirtiness – the animals and fish and water affected – are hard for anyone to ignore/