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07 May

When the Moon came to Earth…

In America, gas prices have become part of the Presidential campaign, and Obama has promised to step up the effort to increase domestic supplies. The reason? Gas prices are now above $4/gallon (about €0,80/liter). You might think this is cheap – in the US, it’s a lot. The main reason that the gas price has soared to these levels is that the price of oil has gone up. It now hovers around $110/barrel, which is a lot higher than historical prices, and high oil prices translates into high prices at the pump.

Being an environmentalist, high oil prices sounds like a good thing. And in many ways it is. Solar and wind power becomes more competitive, consumption is dampened, people drive their cars less, natural gas use increases – all of this translating into fewer emissions. But there’s always another side of the story as well.

When oil prices go up, coal also becomes more competitive. And coal pollutes a lot more. But this is not the main part of this story. What I want to focus on is the story of alternative sources of oil. Embrace yourself for a scary ride.

It looks like a moon landscape or something straight out of a sci-fi movie taking place on a far-away deserted planet. The trees are gone, the sky is grey with pollution, and the only thing visible are far as the eye can see is open-pit mines – grey and brownish gravel-looking areas, intersected by roads here and there. Unfortunately, it’s very real and right here on our planet, more specifically in the boreal forest of Canada’s Alberta province.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, brace yourself for an unpleasant surprise: Allow me to introduce the Tar Sands of Alberta. The largest “oil” reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia – except it’s not really oil; it’s tar.

So what is this Tar Sands stuff? Well, basically it is bitumen (an asphalt like product) mixed with sand and water, which after heavy processing and modification can be turned into oil. It basically has the same consistency as a hockey puck, once the sand and water has been removed. Once heated, the non-oil compounds can be removed, leaving only an oil-like substance, which, when mixed with other types of crude oil can sold as oil.

That this is possible means, of course, that these huge deposits can be exploited commercially. These tar sands, which cover vast areas of northern Alberta, but can be found in Venezuela as well, were once considered too expensive to process, as well as too environmentally damaging to explore.

This was before oil hit $50+/barrel: Now they are being extracted on a bigger-than-ever scale. And the consequences to humans and nature are equally huge.

Here’s why it’s so environmentally damaging: To extract the ‘oil’ from the surface mines, the big oil companies like Shell, Syncrude, and many more, must first cut down the boreal forest, stripping the underlying gravel bare. This releases tons of CO2 – millions of trees are removed, and an ecosystem that used to absorb the CO2, and flourished with wildlife (elk, bears, salmon, and thousands of other animals) are now being destroyed leaving only gravel and polluted rivers.

When the trees are gone, to get to the tar, tonnes of peat and topsoil that lie above the oil sands layer must be removed. To get one barrel of oil, which is a little less than 159 liters, two tonnes(!) of oil sand must be extracted using heavy machinery. Each day, more dirt is moved here than on any other place on earth.

After the tar sand has been extracted, it must be turned from tar into oil. It is heated, a process that requires significant amounts of natural gas and several barrels of water to separate the bitumen from the gravel, and to upgrade it.

The energy ratio for the tar sands, which the energy required to get one barrel of oil, is 1:3. This means that to get three barrels of oil from the tar sands, one barrel of oil is used. You don’t need to be a geologist to see that this is hardly a good ratio. (For comparison, the oil that is pumped from the North Sea has an energy ratio of 1:10). The process actually requires so much energy than the government of Alberta is thinking of building a nuclear reactor to run the show.

I am the only one who can see the irony in using nuclear energy to extract oil?

Besides the energy, millions of liters of water are being used. This water is diverted from the Athabasca River, and each year millions of liters are extracted to use for tar sand operations. This means that communities and ecosystems downstream are affected by water losses. But even worse is the fact that when the water has been used for separating the tar and the gravel, it’s so polluted that it can’t be discharged into the river again.

The industry has been forced to build huge tailings ponds, like the ones which can be seen on the pictures below, where the polluted water is stored. No one knows how long the water has to stay there before the pollutants have settled to the bottom and the water can be cleaned, but most estimates say that it could be upwards of 30 years. Unfortunately, these ponds are leaking substances which are contaminating groundwater as well as the river.

Nasty pollutants, such as lead, mercury, carcinogens, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs), which can cause cancer, deformed growth, other diseases, and even death, are leaking into the river.

Communities downstream are reporting cancers that has never been seen in humans before, the fish from the river look weird, have cancers, and makes people sick. The water in the ponds is so contaminated that 500 birds that once mistakenly took a pond for a lake and landed on it got soaked in oil and chemicals, and all died, just from landing on it or diving into it. Now imagine what happens if you drink it?

Besides killing wildlife, destroying ecosystems, and sickening the people dependent on the affected natural resources, the tar sand project is also hugely damaging to our atmosphere. In case you don’t know about the basic principle of climate change, the problem is that carbon dioxide (CO2) is accumulating in the atmosphere because we are emitting it faster than the planet can remove it with natural processes.

The CO2 traps the outgoing radiation (the same principle that is used in a greenhouse, where the glass traps the radiation), leading to increased temperatures. CO2 naturally comes from many sources, but one of the main processes is the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil.

Due to the way oil from tar sands is extracted, as well as the energy ratio, much more CO2 is released per unit of energy. This makes tar sands oil more damaging to the atmosphere than conventional oil, perhaps as bad as coal, and much worse than natural gas.

So why are we even doing this, you might ask? Surely this is such a devastating project that it can’t really be taking place? Well, until a few years ago it couldn’t. Then the price of oil started to rise, and the Conservative Government of Alberta started giving some very good deals to the oil companies and suddenly, it wasn’t such a bad deal anymore, economically speaking. Basically, as long as the oil price stays above $80/barrel, the tar sands operation is economically feasible.

Of course, this is only the case because every environmental or human concern is completely ignored. In economic terms, these other costs are so-called externalities (borne by society at large) and not reflected in the cost of extraction.

If these environmental and human costs were taken into account, the price of oil should be much, much higher before the operation would be economically feasible. Unfortunately, in many areas of the economy, the social and environmental costs are not internalized, that is, reflected in the cost, with the result that human and natural environments are destroyed. And so the saying goes: It’s the economy, stupid..

I could write several additional paragraphs on this, but as a picture says more than thousand words, I will stop here and encourage you to take a look at the pictures. They are from the National Geographic and other sources, and they are truly frightening. If you wish to learn more about this terrible project, I suggest you read a book by Andrew Nikiforuk called “Tar Sands.” It’s the scariest book I’ve read in a while, but it’s an eye-opener in the truest sense of the word.

Feel free to comment below, and please provide feedback if you know of other books or articles that cover this subject, or if you have ideas for other themes that I should look into.

Last modified on Saturday, 12 May 2012 14:23
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Simon Bager

Simon Baker is 24 years old and deeply interested in the environment. He is a trained geographer from the University, has studied environmental policy at the University of British Columbia, and undergone training in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

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