Tar sands are composed of a dense, gummy, carbon-rich material called bitumen, deposited 65 to 145 million years ago. It can be processed into fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Canada has the world’s largest bitumen deposits, in the Athabasca region of northeastern Alberta, an area the size of Florida. It is at shallow depth and mixed into sandy soil, hence the term “tar sands.”
To 200 feet, bitumen is scraped up by huge power shovels, the largest in the world. Deeper deposits are extracted by injecting huge volumes of hot water or steam underground, then pumping out the melted bitumen. To separate the bitumen from the soil, very hot water is again applied and the scalding mix transferred to huge vats where the bitumen bubbles up and is drawn off. The water is severely polluted and is pumped into vast evaporation ponds.
Alberta is landlocked and does not have the refining capacity to turn all its bitumen into combustible fuel. Hence, the final and very necessary component of the process is that the bitumen slurry be piped south to the Gulf of Mexico where it can be refined and placed on tankers for delivery around the world. This is the purpose of the Keystone XL pipeline.
To extract the bitumen, thousands of acres of pristine boreal forest and wetlands have been destroyed. This is a very significant breeding and nesting ground for migratory water fowl and song birds. The fresh water use for separation is unsustainable (92.4 billion gallons in 2007). The evaporation ponds cover 65 square miles and are enclosed by some of the world’s largest dams. Water use will increase if the extraction progresses as planned. The ponds contain strong carcinogens and toxins such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, well understood to cause human and animal disease. And the dams are leaking. The rivers and waterways are contaminated with these toxins as are the air and the denuded landscape.
Downstream, the native population has been beset with cancers in extraordinary numbers and of rare types. Fish are grotesquely deformed and cancerous, and the people have stopped eating them from Lake Athabasca, their primary ancestral food source. In 2008, 1600 migrating ducks settled onto one of the evaporation ponds and quickly perished.
The thick, liquid bitumen which the pipeline will carry flows sluggishly, so it must be pumped under much higher pressure than conventional petroleum. And, it is acidic and corrosive. Substantial leaks are likely. And contrary to the assurance of the industry, the pipes do leak. 18 months ago, there was a major rupture in a bitumen pipeline from Alberta into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The local water sources are still poisoned. The Keystone XL is planned to go directly over the Ogallala aquifer, which provides 30% of U.S. cropland irrigation. A rupture in that area would be catastrophic.
It is important to consider the combustion of fuels to heat the water for extraction. This adds approximately 25% more green house gas emissions compared to conventional petroleum.
The bitumen industry in Alberta is devastating to the environment. This is the most polluting form of fossil fuel extraction, fracking of shale gas being a close second.
Finally, there are two myths propagated by the industry. First, that thousands of jobs will be created. There will indeed be work initially, but once construction is completed, jobs in the U.S. will be very few. Second, that the oil will greatly add to the supply in the U.S., again overstated and misleading. The refined fuel will be purchased by and shipped to the highest bidder. That would be China and perhaps India, who have a much higher marginal appetite for oil than the U.S.
In summary, the world is steadily running out of fossil fuels which are relatively easy to procure. So the deposits now being sought are more dangerous to exploit. Drilling thousands of feet under the ocean has resulted in catastrophic leaks, as in the Gulf of Mexico. The damage from drilling disasters under the Arctic ice fields will be almost impossible to clean up. The tars sands are far worse.
The deposits from which carbon fuels are made were established millions of years ago. Then, over the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, human industry began to pull carbon from the earth in ever increasing amounts. We are beginning to see the consequences of that: severe storms, droughts, very mild winters and very hot summers. Fossil fuels must eventually be abandoned, energy efficiencies must be expanded, and a massive effort to develop alternative energy sources must be established.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons