July 19th, 2010
While minds continue to rest on the Deep Horizon rig disaster, it’s time to focus on our neighbors to the north
By Alli Berry
The story of the Gulf Spill is a classic tale of corporate greed and its toxic relationship to the federal agency that regulates it. As of late, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been subject to much scrutiny for overruling staff biologists and allowing oil companies to drill without permits. Consequently, according to their website, as of June 18, the MMS has officially change its name to the “Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations and Enforcement.”
While BP has become the ultimate antagonist of this story, the blame for environmental-damage-by-oil should extend much deeper.
Oil addiction, or demand, drives a “free market” economy. As long as there is a demand for this natural capital—and with the American people consistently relying on it as a primary source of energy—there will exist a need for a steady supply.
That supply has to come from somewhere—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and The Gulf come to mind. But this “somewhere” is actually Northeastern Alberta.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, the United States imported 1.883 million barrels of crude oil, and 2.486 million barrels of petroleum per day from Canada in just April of this year. This makes it the top exporter to the United States.
Saudi Arabia, which came in second at 1.245 million barrels of crude oil, and 1,276 million barrels of petroleum, didn’t put up much competition.
Saudi Arabia is home to the Earth’s largest proved oil reserves (264,100,000,000 barrels), which, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, are “those quantities of petroleum which, by analysis of geological and engineering data, can be estimated with a high degree of confidence to be commercially recoverable from a given date forward, from known reservoirs and under current economic conditions.” If Saudi Arabia is home to these “commercially recoverable quantities” and America has moved on, it would appear something has dried up.
American oil now comes from Alberta, but it’s not the same product. The northeastern region of this Canadian territory is home to the Athabasca, Peace River, and Cold Lake Tar Sands. And these special fields are gaining the attention of the world as a new “unconventional” energy source.
OIL FROM SAND
The term tar sands is relatively self-explanatory—grains of sand or clay which are encased in a layer of water and bitumen (a viscous, black oil substance.) While these types of sands are naturally occurring, large quantities of tar sand exist primarily in Venezuela and Canada.
Many, including the Athabasca Oil Sand Corporation (AOSC), claim that tar sands are a feasible alternative to drying oil wells. On their website, the the AOSC explains that “unconventional oil in situ [underground] recovery technologies reduce land surface disturbance, in turn reducing environmental impact and land reclamation costs when compared to mining technologies.”
But while tars sands may sound like the logical auxiliary plan, there is a laundry list of downfalls, all of which wreak havoc on both the environment and Canada’s indigenous peoples.
To produce one barrel of oil, two tons of tar sands must be mined and put through an extraction process to remove bitumen from sediment. According to the Oil Shale and Tar Sands Information Programmatic (OSTSIP) the bitumen, too viscous in its natural form, must then be refined into synthetic crude oil.
Most tar sands are too far underground to be mined in a cost effective manner. When this occurs, in-situ processes are used, injecting steam and solvents into the ground. These processes require a vast amount of water and energy for heating and pumping.
The Oil Shale and Tar Sands Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) “evaluates potential impacts associated with oil shale and tar sands resources development. “According to their data, several barrels of water are required to process and refine just one barrel of oil.
Additionally, the greenhouse gas emissions, poor air/water quality, and mined land displace and endanger Canada’s wildlife and the indigenous peoples that reside in the area.
Clayton Thomas-Müller is a Canadian indigenous activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network. In an interview with Mike Burke of Democracy Now!, he described the consequences of tar sands energy development. “[T]hey have to remove vast tracts of the boreal forest, which, of course, is a critical carbon sink, second-biggest on the planet next to the Amazon rainforest… They burn enough natural gas every day to superheat water to remove the oil from the sand and clay, 600 million cubic feet per day, and that’s enough to heat 2.4 million Canadian homes.”
Furthermore, Thomas-Müller notes that the Dene, Cree, and Metis peoples have lived off the lands in Northern Alberta throughout Canada’s history. Their lives and livelihoods have been threatened since the dawn of tar sands technology.
The choice to end oil destruction begins with a choice made by each and every consumer. The world must start considering the effects of their egregious demand for oil. “[W]e must be the ones leading the charge, if we’re going to truly get to a place where we can build an economic paradigm that does not sacrifice one community for the benefit of communities thousands of miles away,” says Thomas-Muller.
We’ve reached the bottom of the barrel, and it may be the last barrel left.