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A Crude Addiction

While minds continue to rest on the Deep Horizon rig disaster, it’s time to focus on our neighbors to the north

By Uncategorized

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

Photo by Leonard Poole

Photo by Leonard Poole

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.


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.

One Response to A Crude Addiction

  1. Good Afternoon — First, let me congratulate you and your colleagues on how much you care for environmental awareness and keeping the planet’s air, water and land as pristine as possible.

    Albertans and Canadians also care about the environment as much as Americans do. We continue to try our best to find better, more efficient ways to produce our natural resources with smaller and smaller footprints (actual land disturbed) and ways to use less and less energy to fuel our operations.

    Some oil sands is mined because it is so shallow. Most is produced by the conventional pumpjack as it is buried much deeper. This is how Athabasca Oil Sands will produce its bitumen. The wellsites we plan to use are much like the wellsite used in Okalahoma, Texas, California and all over the United States.

    In California, you have a heavy oil field (Bakersfield) which also uses steam and solvents to heat the reservoir, make the oil more viscous so it can be pumped to the surface. Some Canadian heavy oil production is done the same way.

    In every reservoir where oil is found (whether beneath the ocean floor or onshore) it is either buried in rock or sand. Our oil sands are like an ancient beach where the vegetation gradually turned into oil. Most oil is trapped in rock because the vegetation was buried by glaciers (like most of the U.S.’s oil production in Colorado, Texas and other areas).

    It is true that mines (whether oil sands, diamond, zinc or mining for most minerals)take up surface area. Pumpjacks, by comparison do not.

    Conventional oil sands producers use potable water (unfit to drink) — whenever possible — from salt water reservoirs generally located above the oil reservoir, heat it up, pump it up and recycle it back down into the oil reservoir to create the steam. Today’s engineers and geologists understand a lot more about how to make this process more efficient and effective.

    I agree that conventional pumpjacks do disturb some land and wildlife, but we are doing our best to keep the wellsites as small, but as safe, as possible.

    As long as the U.S. and Canada (and the rest of the world) depends on the internal combustion engine to fly planes and drive cars/trucks/ school buses/or emergency vehicles, we need to get the gasoline from somewhere. Gasoline is refined crude oil (whether is comes from rock or sand).

    Alberta and Canada offer the U.S oil from a friend and ally. Some buy from Saudi Arabia (with terrible human rights abuses), Venezuela (which nationalized all foreign production) and other countries which harbour terrorists.

    I wish you and your colleagues all the best. Your school has a wonderul, global reputation for producing fine artists and great talent.

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