The trouble with tar sands
Science Matters from the David Suzuki Foundation:
December 12, 2008 – If you want to be scared you don’t need to watch a horror movie or read the latest Stephen King bestseller.
Real terror can be found by simply firing up Google Earth, the computer program that allows users to look at satellite pictures of any place on the planet. By mousing over and zooming in, you can see what Alberta’s tar sands look like from space.
It is not a pretty sight. In fact, it’s scary – and for good reason.
A recent book by celebrated journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (published by Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation), explores what these grey spots on Google Earth mean to Canada’s environment and economy. It’s an important book, one that every Canadian should read to find out how the world’s largest energy project will affect us.
The scale of the Alberta tar sands project is unprecedented in Canadian history. Alberta’s “blue-eyed sheiks”, as the oil-industry elite are known, stand to make billions of dollars from carving up northern Alberta in order to meet U.S. demand for oil. But these dollars pale in comparison to the environmental value that is being squandered at the expense of petrodollars.
The main tar sands deposits are at three sites in Alberta: Peace River, Cold Lake, and Athabasca. The Athabasca region contains the largest deposit of crude bitumen in the world.
All of this bitumen, a complex mixture of molecules from prehistoric life, is a geological miracle with which Canada has been blessed. This bitumen could turn out to be a substance that will help our children and grandchildren in ways that we can’t even imagine today, much the same way our ancestors couldn’t have imagined us using silicon in our computer chips. But instead of safeguarding this resource, we are using it up. And we are creating an environmental catastrophe that will take centuries to recover from…if we recover at all.
The tar sands consist of a mixture of silica sand, minerals, clay, water, and most importantly, crude bitumen. The process of converting bitumen so that we can use it to power our cars, heat our homes, and transport our food is not easy.
It’s estimated that two tonnes of earth must be excavated to produce one barrel of thick tar-like bitumen. And it requires as much as three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River to make one barrel of bitumen. It also takes a huge amount of energy to extract the oil from the sands.
Now think about this: each day Canada exports one million barrels of bitumen to the United States.
In the media, we hear that tar sands will provide oil companies with tremendous profits in the future, but there’s been very little discussion about what happens next. Even hardened energy experts agree that relying on oil-soaked sand to meet North America’s energy needs means that we’re nearing the end of the cheap-oil era.
We know that our lifestyles must change. We know that burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas creates smog that harms our health and creates global warming. We know that global warming poses an incredible threat to humanity.
We also know that there are solutions, such as creating a future based on renewable sources, increasing conservation efforts, and rethinking society so that we protect our quality of life without destroying the planet in the process.
With all the money being made from the tar sands, very little of it seems to be reinvested in renewable energy that comes from wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal sources. If anything, we could be investing this money in low-carbon projects so that we won’t have to pull every bit of bitumen from the ground.
When my children were younger, they’d often ask me about the bogeyman – a mythical evil spirit who’d lie in wait under their beds when the lights went out. But maybe the bogeyman isn’t some scary creature. Maybe the bogeyman is simply a man in a suit trying to satisfy his shareholders, make a profit, and cosy up to federal politicians so he can continue doing his work without having to answer to his environmental crimes.
Or maybe there’s something more frightening to consider. Perhaps the bogeyman is us – the public that places the short-term economic value of the tar sands above the priceless value of our environment and our health.