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Alberta’s tar sands a slow-motion equivalent of the Gulf disaster

Steven Weissman, associate director, Center for Law, Energy and the Environment | June 24, 2010

If you were President Obama, what would you do about the tar sands fields in Alberta?  He is being asked to approve or reject a pipeline extension that would carry 900,000 barrels per day of Canadian crude deep into the United States.  It has to be exceedingly tempting to just say “yes”.  After all, Canada is our biggest and friendliest source of oil, and at least the oil wouldn’t be coming from offshore.  And no one expects the U.S. to cut off its demand for oil overnight.  Nonetheless, the tar sands pits in Alberta are just about the last place we should turn for crude oil. From all reports, harvesting Alberta tar sands is an environmental disaster.  A new report from Ceres equates the environmental threats from tar sands with the hazards related to oil from the Gulf.  There is also no doubt that it is a mistake from a greenhouse gas perspective.

Keystone pipelineI have mentioned these messy fields before.  A colleague from the University of Wyoming now points to a guest column in the Missoulian, where Tom Woodbury of the Western Watersheds Project describes the ongoing process of extracting oil from Canadian rocks and sands as a slow-motion equivalent of the Gulf disaster.  He points out that as a result of these processes, “a vast boreal forest the size of Florida will be laid to waste, fouling the water and turning one of the world’s largest carbon sinks – storing 11 percent of the world’s carbon and home to 166 million birds – into the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet.”  This is more than the usual case of the recovery of fossil fuels leading to massive carbon dioxide releases because the processing of tar sands is particularly energy and carbon intensive.

News reports about chemical tests are never as dramatic as the sight of oil-drenched birds and fish.  Maybe that’s why a study released in 2007 did not prompt a dramatic response from environmentalists in the lower 48.  In that year, an ecologist with Treeline Environmental Research issued a report finding high levels of carcinogens and toxic substances in fish, water, and sediment downstream from the tar sands fields.  The New York Times quoted a local health official as saying, “For years the community has believed that there’s lots of cancer.  When they drank from the water, there was an oily scum around the cup.  We now know that there is something wrong.”  At the time, an Alaskan research scientist commented, “This could actually be worse, in some respects, than the Exxon Valdez.”

Increasing the take-away capacity from the tar sands fields by 900,000 barrels per day is like drilling a large number of offshore wells.  (Ceres reports that the plan is to eventually double that expansion.)  But while industry representatives will argue that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was an unpredictable aberration, the environmental destruction in Alberta is a sure thing.  Build the pipeline, and the oil will come.  What is left behind will take lifetimes to repair.  This is all so that the United States can maintain its unrestrained oil habit — with foreign fuel, as well – even if it is from a friendly source.

Cross-posted from the Legal Planet.

Comments to “Alberta’s tar sands a slow-motion equivalent of the Gulf disaster

  1. Mr. Weismann, you have no idea what you are talking about. Check Google Earth and the area disturbed by the oilsands is barely a blip on the boreal forest. The disturbed area north of Fort McMurray is barely the size of that city and currently smaller than the City of Edmonton, the only city with a pop. of 500,000 near oilsands developments.

    Honestly, do you even know the difference between oilsands mining operations and Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage operations and huge differences in land disturbance between the two? Or that every month China starts more coal fired powered plants that will produce more CO2 than the oilsands ever will? Get informed before writing anything on this issue in the future.

    The ignorance in the US on this issue, especially among US environmental groups is staggering. Please feel free to contact me to learn the impact of the oilsands from an environmental scientist from AB, who lives in AB,and who has worked on environmental applications to the AB govt and the CAN govt for oilsands projects.

    You are typical of most leftist Americans who believe the lies of Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

  2. yeah you can’t just say this? have you ever been up to the sites and seen what happens up there? i bet you you haven’t. Also, while you are at it, don’t put the burden “Tar Sands”; it puts a image that it is very bad. Just use “oil sands” how everyone else see’s it not putting a bad image on the companies in Alberta.

  3. As an expatriate living on the Korean peninsula, I read this article article and the posted viewpoints that followed with extremely limited environmental concern, Why? — Because I could not stop myself from thinking; “You are all simply wasting your mental energy, your time, your intelligences and your concerns on this particular “White Elephant” issue –
    It really doesn’t really matter folks ….not a damn thing, one way or the other, as to what you are debating here and arguing about as to what should or should not be done in regards to mining these oil-sands in Alberta – because guys — WHEN ……..NOT …IF …..but WHEN.
    — The teetering spent fuel rod storage pool, Inside a lopsided, two-story, damaged water cooled tank perched 100 feet above the ground, in the Reactor No.4 building at the stricken Fukushima Daichi plant, propped up by jacks to stop the floor from caving through, its roof blown off by a hydrogen explosion, open to the atmosphere, in an environment too hot for robots, let alone human workers.

    All it will take is 7-point earthquake to knock it ass-over or make it spring a leak.

    Once the water spills from this pool, a nuclear explosion and fire would follow immediately, within an hour or so, potentially spewing 85 times the radiation emitted by Chernobyl around the northern hemisphere and eventually the entire planet.

    A 7-point earthquake is predicted for the region soon.

    This is not some fruit-loop, exaggerated half-cocked doomsday bogey-monster bedtime story going on here- because this is being loudly bellowed by Scientists, very very afraid scientists from around the globe–
    The fate of our entire world hangs 100-feet above the ground in a decrepitly damaged, exposed to the elements spent nuclear fuel rod pool.
    And what are we all doing about it

    What is the individual in the street doing? ……Nothing!
    What are leaders of any capacity doing?……..Nothing!

    What are you guys busy debating here on this topic on the environmental impact of mining a tar pit it doing about a matter far more environmentally deadly and all encompassing?

    Are you channeling your efforts and intellects into pushing your governments and media to throw down the gauntlet like your lives and the lives of all those you love depended on it?
    You damn well should be! — Quit pissing around with your minds and efforts on something that is not important right now…… There won’t be 50,000 square miles of forest if Reactor 4 goes over …..there just won’t be anything on this planet left alive……

    Make your own home made call to action rocket and launch it up the ass of anyone who can push for a global initiative to be acted on immediately to solve this deathly crises.
    Although, It may just be already too late ( as of Saturday 14th April)

    To finish – straight from the horse’s mouth:

  4. The tar sands mining project in Alberta, Canada, is possibly the largest industrial project in human history.

  5. This morning’s Washington forward has a full-page ad by the control of Alberta touting the pipeline. It makes no remark of this wonder about the brunt on scarce new irrigate and pollution, a large amount a smaller amount the other losses mentioned in this piece. I institute this piece for the reason that a Canadian I had met and chatted among on a elongated aloofness Amtrak outing told me roughly speaking what he described as “dirty Canadian oil” and I wanted to see if this oil was what he was referring to.

  6. I can’t believe that Americans have the Audacity to criticize another country’s energy projects while meantime they pump literally millions of gallons (Americans don’t understand liters) into the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps the Tar Sands should be renamed the Great Alberta Soil Reclamation project since that is basically what is being done, removing the “tar” from the soil, not pouring it into it like the Americans did in the gulf!!!

  7. Steven Weissman….Have you ever been to the Alberta oilsands? I didn’t think so, otherwise you would have your facts straight. They are not the size of Florida like you say,more like Rhode Island presently. I work and feed my family from these so called tarsands. Restoration and reforestation,which I am a part of is a full time job. You should see the reclaimed land that the deer,bear,moose and nesting birds enjoy. This so called tarsand leeches out of the riverbank and drips into the river,just like it did for hundreds of years. The natives used it to patch their birchbark canoes. If this resource was in San Francisco you would be doing the same,mining it. So Mr. Weissman until you come to Alberta and see our beautiful province, keep your misguided opinions to yourself. I thought you would have learned after climategate. P.S……It’s oilsand not tarsand. Darren Blair

  8. In the search for truth one cannot always rely on the statements of friends. It pays to check out key statements or claims oneself. Weissman quoted Woodbury as saying “a vast boreal forest the size of Florida will be laid to waste …” I believe this to be an inaccurate statement spread by well-intentioned environmentalists who are either ignorant or believe the ends–a cleaner, lower-carbon future (something we can all agree on)–justifies the means.

    Let’s see what we can learn about the size of the land that “will be laid to waste.” For starters, there is the size of Florida, which is approximately 53,900 square miles or 140,000 square kilometers. Next there is size of the Canadian boreal forest that actually has oil sands deposits underlying it. According to the Government of Alberta Web Site (, “Alberta’s oil sands underlie 140,200 km2 (54,132 square miles) of land in the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River areas in northern Alberta. As of March 31, 2009, just 602 km2 are disturbed by oil sands mining, about the size of the City of Edmonton, which accounts for 0.3% of the oil sands area, or 0.1% of the total land area of Alberta.” From the same source we have: “The mineable oil sands region is slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island.” The last time I checked Rhode Island’s land area was only 1.94 percent of the area of Florida! I conclude from the above information that Woodbury’s statement is at best grossly misleading or, more likely, plainly wrong. Using Woodbury’s quotes reduces your blog’s credibility and damages efforts to deal with serious environmental issues.This reinforces my belief that one of the biggest obstacles to solving our environmental, global warming, and energy problems are well intended educated persons who do not check their facts. I would expect less shoddy scholarship from an institution like Berkeley!

  9. “What is left behind will take lifetimes to repair.”

    Maybe this is true. But so what? The Earth is 4,000,000,000 years old. In that time it has seen far worse environmental degradations and yet manages to come back over and over. I’m not stating that we should pollute for polluting’s sake, and nor should we not want Alberta to do everything in its power to mitigate the negative consequences of this activity.

    But as mentioned by the previous poster, if we don’t buy the oil, then China will. And they will have no qualms about the level of ecological destruction happening.

    Don’t believe me? Take a look at their activities in Africa. The Africans love them and let them do whatever they want: they come in with huge wads of cash and development projects, extract what they need with no regard to the environment, and don’t lecture Africans on their human rights “challenges” and sustainability.

    That certainly wouldn’t play to Canadian sensibilities, but then again, you have to remember that these fields are far, far away from the eco-green-pc-centric metropoli of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. It’s not even on their radar.

    I’d rather we buy oil from friendly Canadians, even if they temporarily (remember, the Earth will be here after humans are extinct) destroy an area the size of Florida than be beholden to Huge Chavez and similar America-haters.

  10. This morning’s Washington Post has a full-page ad by the Government of Alberta touting the pipeline. It makes no mention of this debate about the impact on scarce fresh water and pollution, much less the other losses mentioned in this piece. I found this article because a Canadian I had met and chatted with on a long distance Amtrak trip told me about what he described as “dirty Canadian oil” and I wanted to see if this oil was what he was referring to.

  11. My take-away from consideration of the tar sands is not that Canadians are bad actors, but that the US is entirely complicit with what is going on there. It is US investment and US demand that drives the project. Anything that would happen in the US to make our use of fossil fuels more efficient could have the result that Trent Webster describes of freeing up more oil for China and other nations. An “everyone else is doing it” philosophy will not make things better. Considering all of the implications of our energy choices and acting responsibly just might.

  12. The oil sands are enormously popular in the province of Alberta and in Western Canada. They have brought unprecedented wealth to the people of Alberta and Western Canada. Western Canadians have long known that it was impossible not to alter the environment while extracting energy from the oil sands. Unfortunately, all energy extraction and mining comes at a price to the environment. The province of Alberta has taken measures to mitigate environmental concerns, and the industry has generally been responsive in addressing those concerns.

    It is certainly the prerogative of Americans to not buy energy from the oil sands. However, energy is a fungible global commodity, with eager buyers elsewhere. If Americans choose not build a pipeline increasing the flow of oil from the oil sands, Canadian energy companies will sell energy to buyers abroad. For example, Chinese energy firms have shown significant interest in the oil sands for some time.

    Reducing the flow of oil from the tar sands merely decreases US energy security and increases the price of energy paid by Americans. Rather than not building a pipeline from Canada, it would be better to focus on developing alternative energies that would reduce American dependency on foreign and dirty sources of energy.

    • Well said, American intellectuals and politicians have the most arrogant habit of sticking our noses in other nations’ problems because we fail so badly at solving our own political, economic, environmental and social problems. Apparently we think our failures make us experts in anything we choose to pontificate about, as long as we don’t criticize ourselves.

      Indeed, UC is the role model for failure in this respect because we could have solved not only our own, but the world’s “dependency on oil and dirty sources of energy” by now if we had not chosen instead over 50 years ago to dedicate our most valuable scientific resources to building and maintaining Hydrogen bombs instead just because our military-industrial complex pays so much better up front than humanity does.

      Thus we are preeminent at ignoring our own failures and criticizing others. We even have a cultural value of ignoring our own greatest minds like President Eisenhower and Charles Keeling until we are actually facing the calamities they warned us about half a century ago.

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