Scraping the barrel

The wild and beau­ti­ful Cana­dian Bo­real For­est is the po­lar op­po­site to the neigh­bour­ing hell­hole of the Al­berta Tar Sands – North Amer­ica’s lat­est oil rush site.

Element - - Planet - By Sam Eich­blatt

Iwas first in­tro­duced to the tar-sands phe­nom­e­non via a National Ge­o­graphic ar­ti­cle from 2009. A spruce-cov­ered wet­lands along the Athabasca River in north­ern Al­berta, Canada — a land­scape not hugely dis­sim­i­lar from our own —had been turned into some­thing closely ap­prox­i­mat­ing the Western con­cep­tion of hell. The land was gouged and bar­ren, in some places 100 feet of soil and or­ganic mat­ter skinned away, leav­ing an oily black vista stretch­ing to the hori­zon. As de­sen­si­tised as I’d be­come to im­ages of en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, this one shocked me on a vis­ceral level.

It’s been called “the world’s dirt­i­est fuel” and un­til re­cently, tar-sand de­posits were con­sid­ered too ex­pen­sive and too de­struc­tive to mine. To­day, as the price of tra­di­tional oil rises and tech­nol­ogy makes prof­itable ex­trac­tion more vi­able, the vast tracts un­der Canada, and smaller de­posits in Rus­sia, Kaza­khstan and the Congo are con­sid­ered part of our global oil re­serves.

The tar sands in­dus­try would like to see its ac­tiv­i­ties re­branded into the sex­ier “oil sands”, which im­plies some­thing more palat­able to the pub­lic.

How­ever, it’s a dirty, sticky busi­ness: tar sand is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring bi­tu­men de­posit, a semi-solid sludge of heavy crude oil mixed with sand and clay. Be­cause it doesn’t flow, the in­dus­try uses strip min­ing for ex­trac­tion, rather than tra­di­tional oil wells, and then melts the oil out of the sand, gen­er­ally with steam. It takes two tonnes of sand, and five bar­rels of wa­ter, to pro­duce a sin­gle barrel of oil — with the wastew­a­ter go­ing into “tail­ings ponds” for de­con­tam­i­na­tion.

Coated with rafts of float­ing bi­tu­men, th­ese ponds are so toxic that they kill birds that land on their wa­ters.

The process pro­duces three times the green­house gas emis­sions of con­ven­tional oil, and it’s th­ese emis­sions, specif­i­cally, that mean Canada will not meet its Ky­oto re­duc­tion com­mit­ments.

“The world’s largest and most dev­as­tat­ing in­dus­trial pro­ject is sit­u­ated in the heart of the largest and most in­tact for­est in the world — Canada’s Bo­real For­est,” said pho­to­jour­nal­ist Garth Lenz in his 2011 TED talk. Lenz, too, has doc­u­mented the one-sided bat­tle be­tween un­touched land­scape and heavy in­dus­try, pro­duc­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion on the Al­berta tar sands ti­tled The True Cost of Oil. Wet­lands, says Lenz, are the most en­dan­gered, but crit­i­cal ecosys­tems: “They clean air, they clean wa­ter, and they se­quester a large amount of green­house gases. They’re also home to a huge di­ver­sity of species.”

The vast lakes of con­tam­i­nated tail­ings wastew­a­ter and mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture of the Athabasca River fa­cil­i­ties al­ready con­sti­tute the big­gest in­dus­trial pro­ject on the planet. Plans were re­cently an­nounced that it is set to triple in size over the next two decades, de­spite

It takes two tonnes of sand, and five bar­rels of wa­ter, to pro­duce a sin­gle barrel of oil — with the wastew­a­ter go­ing into “tail­ings ponds” for de­con­tam­i­na­tion.

warn­ings from sci­en­tists that the nearly 200sqkm of toxic wastew­a­ter pose the big­gest threat to the en­vi­ron­men­tal heart­land dubbed “Canada’s Serengeti”.

This de­spite the re­port re­leased by Canada’s En­ergy Re­source Con­ser­va­tion Board last month that found tar sands com­pa­nies — in­clud­ing Suncor, Syn­crude and Al­bian Sands, a con­sor­tium of Shell, Chevron and Marathon Oil Corp — have failed to meet their own com­mit­ments to im­ple­ment the wa­ter re­cy­cling and recla­ma­tion plans which were a con­di­tion of li­cens­ing the land.

A re­cently un­cov­ered Cana­dian Govern­ment memo says fed­eral govern­ment sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence that tar-sands tail­ings are leak­ing into the ground­wa­ter, con­tam­i­nat­ing lakes 100km away.

In May this year, the Cana­dian Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources dou­bled its spend to $16.5m on ad­ver­tis­ing to pro­mote the Al­berta tar sands, as its Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper ar­rived on Amer­i­can soil, part of an in­sis­tent lob­by­ing push which aims to win White House ap­proval for the Key­stone XL pipe­line ex­ten­sion, which could see 1.1 mil­lion bar­rels of oil trans­ported to re­finer­ies in the Gulf Coast area.

While there is yet to be a re­li­able sign as to which side of the ar­gu­ment Obama will take, me­dia pun­dits are call­ing Key­stone XL the most im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal de­ci­sion of his pres­i­dency.


The Al­berta Tar Sands cover over 140,000 square kilo­me­tres. It is the largest known reser­voir of crude bi­tu­men in the world. Each day the gas emit­ted from its pro­cess­ing plants equates to the ex­haust of 1.34 mil­lion cars.

One of the 60km of toxic tail­ings lakes of the tar sands, which can be seen from space. Most of which are sus­pected to be leak­ing. 1.8 bil­lion litres are added to th­ese lakes ev­ery day, and it is es­ti­mated that for ev­ery 160 litres which go into the lakes, one litre es­capes. It is dif­fi­cult to gauge the scale of the op­er­a­tion, un­til you no­tice the 400-tonne trucks on the road in this pic­ture. The enor­mous equip­ment work­ing the Tar Sands in­clude th­ese huge dig­gers and 400 tonne trucks - the size of a two storey house.

The pris­tine Bo­real For­est is un­der threat from this de­vel­op­ment.

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