While we can keep ourselves plenty occupied here in the Pacific Northwest with all the current proposals for expanding and new oil-by-rail, we cannot forget our neighbors to the north. If you’ve read anything at all about tar sands development, you have heard of the Alberta Tar Sands.
The Alberta Tar Sands are a huge mixed deposit of sand, clay, bitumen and water found underneath the boreal forests of Alberta. Because these sands are extremely heavy and viscous, they cannot be extracted as straightforwardly conventional oil deposits are; they have to be strip-mined, excavated, or injected with steam in order to loosen the tar sands sufficiently to bring them up from below the surface. The Alberta Government’s website will proudly tell you that the oil reserve contained in the Tar Sands deposit is second only to Saudi Arabia, and the deposit is about the size of Florida; and that it supplies 1.4 million barrels of oil per day to their neighbors to the south; i.e., me and my fellow Americans.
What the Alberta government’s website also will tell you is that oil sands are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions of any industrial sector in that country- contributing upwards of 38% of Canada’s industrial GHG emissions. What they won’t articulate as clearly is the reason why: because of the energy needed to extract and refine tar sands, oil sands emissions from extraction and refining are 3 to 4 times higher than those produced by conventional oil, and its GHG footprint is between a quarter to a third higher than conventional gas is, when looked at using life cycle analysis. Nor will they show you the 50 square kilometers of toxic tailings ponds in northern Alberta that can be seen from space. Nor will they describe the multiple spills– some of them ongoing for months- associated with some of the steam-injection efforts to retrieve these oils. Nor will they show you the unbelievable imagery from these projects showing the destruction of the boreal forest and the tailings ponds and other mining infrastructure, which is something like watching the reality show version of the Onceler’s efforts in the Lorax.
As I have written about multiple times, the Keystone XL pipeline would be a major route of transmission for tar sands oil to reach international markets, with the capacity to move 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands to refiners on the south coast of the US, from whence they will be shipped to international markets. But Keystone isn’t the only game in town; other major proposed projects would move oil westward from Alberta and through BC to be exported from ports on Canada’s coast. One of the largest of these proposals is the Enbridge Northern Pipeline.
Enbridge proposes to spend in the neighborhood of $6 to $8 billion to move up to 525,000 barrels of oil a day through 730 miles of pipeline cutting through the Canadian Rockies to the Port of Kitimat, British Columbia. A parallel pipeline would pipe 193,000 barrels per day of condensate, a mixture of petroleum and other chemicals used to dilute the tar sands so it can even move through the pipeline, from west to east to assist with processing. These pipelines would cross over 1,000 streams and rivers, including the headwaters of the Fraser River. The resultant product would be loaded onto ships bound for international markets, and would necessitate an estimated addition 225 oil tankers per year which would be sent through the Douglas Channel, which narrows to less than a kilometer wide. All this brought to you by the same folks who are responsible for a pipeline break and consequent spill of 800,000 barrels of oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, which they are still cleaning up, to the tune of about a billion dollars so far.
Unfortunately for those of us who do not see the net benefits of oil sands production working in favor of the Canadian people and ecosystems, Canada’s National Energy Board recently gave Enbridge a green light– with 209 conditions that the company must meet- stating that the country would be “better off with it than without it.” This does not mean, however, that Enbridge can yet proceed- it must now enter a 180 day review period with the federal government. Meanwhile, public opposition to the project continues to grow, particularly among British Columbia’s First Nations, many of whom are saying they will not allow this pipeline through their territory. A wide coalition of environmental groups and fisheries interests are also working actively to oppose the proposal. Recent polls indicate the majority of British Columbians oppose the project.
So what can we do, from below and beyond the border, to show our support for Canadians calling on their government not to facilitate tar sands development? Certainly all of our choices to use fossil fuels cumulatively impacts the market for these fuels; that’s the most obvious- and most dispersed and hard to grasp- aspect of this whole issue, because it truly is all of us, collectively, driving the fossil fuel market. As irrational as it might seem when you actually put your head around it, investing billions of dollars, destroying vast tracts of virgin forests, risking oil spills and vastly increasing our GHG emissions is still viewed as an economically viable, and desirable, outcome to some folks whose decisions matter a lot. That is partly politics, and it is partly inertia, but it is also demand driven, and O&G companies would not continue to engage in these ventures if there were not really a market. To that end, every step we can take to use less irreplaceable carbon sources, and to move towards alternative and renewable fuels, are all incredibly important.
At the same time, you can help those fighting on the front lines of these efforts, even if you can’t be there, by virtually standing in solidarity with them: you can sign, as I just did, the Yinka Dene Alliance of First Nations pledge to Hold the Wall against the development of this pipeline. You can visit, like, support, and join the lists of the organizations working on direct action on oil-by-pipeline issues, including Tar Sands Blockade and 350.org, working on the Keystone issue and Tar Sands Solutions Network based in Canada. These are just a few of the many, many groups that are working hard to envision our collective future as less fossil fuel dependent, and they need and deserve our support.