As a self-styled progressive country, Canada just hosted the Kyoto and Climate Convention meetings in Montreal last December. Various government ministers, including Prime Minister Martin, made speeches and twisted arms for international action on climate change.
But under the hood, Canada remains the SUV gas guzzler.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to six percent below 1990 levels, by the year 2012. Instead, Canada has constantly added more and more greenhouse gases. In 2005, it was a whopping 24 percent ABOVE 1990 levels.
Canadians drive incredible distances in gas hungry vehicles, waste tons of carbon through leaky inefficient homes and commercial buildings, and always leave the lights on everywhere. When it comes to belching greenhouse gases, Canadian are just Americans with a glossy green self image.
Here is the worst part. Who is the number one carbon drug pusher to the United States?
[contestant voice] Saudi Arabia? [buzzer], [contestant voice] Venezuela? [buzzer]
[contestant voice] Alex, Is it Canada? [bell, applause]
While spouting rhetoric about clean energy and global action, Canada is the NUMBER ONE CARBON DRUG PUSHER to the United States. From Newfoundland offshore oil platforms in the Atlantic, from new fields in the Western provinces, through new billion dollar pipelines running like black rivers to American refineries, Canada feeds the needs of the world’s largest carbon polluter. If Americans are addicts, Canada is certainly the drug pusher.
Now Canada has found a seemingly inexhaustible source of oil, billions of barrels, enough to send the Earth’s climate into a blazing Hell full of storms, or perhaps to tip the planet into a new Ice Age. While Canadians cheer, and US Republicans cozy up to a war-free carbon fix, the entire biosphere is threatened by the Canadian tar sands.
What are the tar sands? Can they really power the world for centuries? Is it worth scraping away vast areas? If you like living in a world suitable for animals, you need to know about the Canadian tar baby.
Let’s go straight to oil industry sources. There is a fine 3 part series on Alberta’s Tar Sands in Greenwire, starting August 18th, 2005. You can find Greenwire at www.eenews.net/Greenwire.php. The series was republished in another good insider source called RigZone at www.rigzone.com.
Alberta is a gigantic province on the Western edge of the Canadian prairies. It is so rich in regular oil and gas fields that Albertans receive a check from their government. The Province has no debt whatsoever, and boasts a multi-billion dollar rainy day fund.
Alberta produces 70 percent of Canada’s oil, 80 percent of its natural gas, and receives three quarters of the billions of tax dollars given away to the multinational oil companies, to encourage them to mine more carbon.
In the North, a frontier town called Fort MacMurray is the center of one of the most staggering engineering and mining exploits ever seen on planet Earth. Foreign-owned companies, mostly America, are engaged in strip mining and drilling 54,000 square miles – ripping away the surface of the earth in an area the size of Florida, just to keep those Hummers going for the commute.
One hundred and twenty million years ago, the detritus of plant life, from another carbon rich age, became worked into sand, to form a sticky, black goo, 50 to 100 feet below the current landscape of boreal forest, swamps, and lakes. These are the tar sands, also known as the oil sands.
According to the Alberta government, there are 1.6 TRILLION, that’s trillion, barrels of oil locked up in this substance called bitumen. There are 175 billion barrels of proven reserves ready to today’s technology to grab, making the Alberta tar sands second only to Saudi Arabia.
At present, 29 companies are pulling out a million barrels a day, almost all of it going to the United States. Corporations say that production will tripple by 2015, making the Alberta tar sands the fifth largest oil producer in the world.
As oil prices rise, the tar sands become more and more attractive. A whole string of US Congressmen and officials have already visited the Alberta operations. Even Dick Cheney was slate to tour the black bonanza. Major corporations, like Shell, have already pumped billions and billions of dollars into development of the tar sands.
But getting the oil out of the sticky sand isn’t cheap, or good for the environment. The oil is locked in, requiring a complex system to “crack” it away. That process needs whole rivers of water, and entire natural gas fields, just to get the oil ready for refineries.
Experts expect that by 2010, just four years away, oil sands production alone will take up 12 percent of the total energy allowed under the Kytoto Protocol for Canadian use. That is, the tar sands operations themselves produce massive amounts of carbon waste, before a single gallon reaches consumers.
The black gold rush has pummeled local aboriginal tribes, and opened a flood of crummy fast food chains and strip malls to serve the oil workers. Houses in Fort MacMurray, previously worth $60,000, now cost up to half a million dollars. Thousands of workers are sharing accomodations, bunked up, while working insane hours for a strip mining operation that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
And all this is a model for the US politicians and oil lobbyists, like Senator Orin Hatch, that want similar production from the oil bearing shales in the American Rocky mountains. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was loaded with corporate goodies for anyone wanting to rip the shale out of mountains and melt if down for the oil.
Back in the badlands, the world’s largest 400 ton trucks, more than two stories high, haul away the black goo from equally gigantic shovel machines. Sometimes they mine it, but most of the time they strip away up to 100 feet of the land, which they haul away into gigantic slag heaps.
The tar sands have to be crushed, and then turned into a mobile slurry with amazing amounts of water. The slurry is passed through furnaces almost as hot as the sun, and pressed with hydrogen, which unites with the carbon to form a hydrocarbon.
But what is the source of all this hydrogen? It comes from natural gas from Canada’s North. So this cleaner burning fuel is wasted to create the dirtier oil. Canadian’s have heard about the proposed giant MacKenzie Valley pipeline, to bring natural gas south from the arctic. But gas hungry Canadian and Americans will never see it for their heating. The entire production of the new pipeline would be sucked up by the Alberta tar sands companies.
Incidentally, due to the Tar Sands, Canadian technicians are learning more about handling hydrogen. For one thing, there are hydrogen storage facilities close enough to homes and energy operations to create the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb if accidentally or purposefully touched off. Another big risk.
Almost every multinational oil company is involved. One of the big producers, Syncrude, is owned by a consortium tha tinclude Imperial Oil, Petro Canada, ConocoPhillips, and Murphy Oil. Shell is also a major player, operating its own massive tar sands facilities.
Where the land cannot be easily stripped away, due to overlying rock, the companies drill down, and inject gigajoules of heat, again from natural gas burners, to melt the tar below, enough to pump it up.
The corporations spend a few million expaining how green they are, while hauling away billions of dollars of profits and product. Stephen Hazell of the Sierra Club of Canada told Greenwire:
“When they talk about how well they’re doing, its in the context of the filthiest industry one can imagine. I can’t think of another industry that causes so much damage.”
The big machinery strips away entire forests and landscapes, leaving barren holes as lifeless as the moon. Then they truck some of the slag back in, try and smooth it over, and replant something. Nothing natural is left. Even the recovery efforts use up massive amounts of energy, as diesel equipment moves mountains of materials. Syncrude says it “reclaims” about 740 acres a year. They have thousands of acres to go, as they operate the largest crude oil production in Canada, amounting to 13 percent of all the energy used by Canadians – except the oil doesn’t go to Canadians, but to their wealthier cousins to the South.
Sulphur pours out of the processing plants, creating more acid rain. Just one company, Syncrude, pumps out 245 metric tons of sulfur dioxide every day. The Shell tar sands project adds millions of tons of sulfur dioxide to the atmosphere every year. Syncrude produced over 700 tonnes of sulfuric acid as well, the second largest source in Canada.
The tailing ponds, really tailing lakes, are left while the most noxious chemicals settle to the bottom. Toxic lakes, loaded with chemicals like toluene and Trimethyl benzene. Syncrude released 408 tonnes of toluene into the environment in one year, the largest source of this deadly chemical in Canada. Just dumped into the environment, free.
The whole underground water system has been wiped out. Much of the Athabasca River is being rerouted to oil plants, because it takes at least two barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. The Pembina Institute estimates the tar sands are currently using enough water to service the needs of a city of 2 million people. And it all comes out the other side dirty, and polluted with persistent chemicals. You can get a full report on the Oil Sand Fever from pembina.org. [link: http://www.pembina.org/pdf/publications/OilSands72.pdf]
The ground level insects, plants, and fungi destroyed. The plan is to replace it all with artificial rolling hills with grassland, some day.
Meanwhile, the former residents are unsettled. The caribou, moose, and deer flee the constant noise, and confusion of pipelines, pads, and pumps criss-crossing their former habitat. The wolves follow the pipeline cuts, to find easy access to their prey. And maga-flocks of migratory birds land in the toxic lakes.
Like George Bush in America, Alberta’s government has steadfastly opposed the Kyoto Protocol. They just want more and more oil production, and more provincial revenues, no matter what happens to the Earth delicate climate. Damn the hurricanes, the Arctic, and the species. Haul away the land and the species – we need more oil! [chant more oil, more oil]
[music clip, all about the oil]
For all environment radio, free, tune in to Radio Ecoshock at www.ecoshock.org