Stop the Tar Sands

ByLawrence Sampson

President Obama may have stopped the XL Pipeline, but not the root of the problem.

Canada is famous for its wild untamed frontier. A country slightly larger than the United States but with a tenth of the population, much of Canada remains undeveloped and retains its natural beauty. However if you were dropped into the eastern portions of Alberta, you might think you had landed on the moon. Some 1,800 miles of land has been stripped of all life. Welcome to the tar sands, an international quagmire with environmental implications, and the most destructive project the world has ever known. This undertaking poses a terrible risk to life and land, and it must be stopped at all costs.

Tar Sands, also called bituminous oil, are thick viscous fluids near the surface that can actually be obtained by mining in addition to more common drilling techniques. As the oil is saturated in sand and clay, it is very difficult and expensive to extract. Large amounts of fresh water are used for these purposes. All told from the time it is first acquired in its natural state, tar sands uses between ten and forty five percent more energy than conventionally obtained and refined oils require.

The runoff or sludge that results from the tar sands- also called oil sands,’ production is stored in huge lakes, which are already known to be leaking into the nearby Muskeg River. With the tar sands you get the environmental trifecta, air, land, and water are all being polluted. Because tar sands produce heavy oil which is far more toxic than common petroleum, the pollution’s effect on the Earth and on human bodies is greatly exaggerated.

The Ft. Chipewyan Indian Reserve is a small community of just over one thousand Indians who live and work around the tar sands project. One family inordinately affected says an extraordinary cocktail of cancers, leukemia, seizures, and still other ailments have risen sharply in the years since work began on the sands. This family alone endured a dozen funerals in the past year due to these illnesses. There have already been two tar sands oil spills in the U.S, one into the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, Michigan- the worst in the Midwest’s history, and at a Colorado refinery which spilled into the South Platte River. Near these spills a conspicuously similar run of the same illnesses and deaths has occurred.

A massive project, the XL pipeline, was proposed to send oil from Alberta all the way to the American gulf coast and other points in the United States. This path took the oil not only across nine Indian reservations and reserves, but across the largest fresh water aquifer in the world, the Ogallala water aquifer. The Ogallala runs from north Texas to South Dakota and for years has been a fresh water source for homes and farms. A disaster in the making, one oil leak and the Ogallala is ruined forever. 

Over the last year the usual public relations on television have taken place with Shell Oil heralding the “energy security” and “economic impact” the pipeline would have. The commercials are replete with squeaky clean scenes of scientists in laboratories swilling unknown substances in beakers. It all looks modern and lovely, without a single shot of the oil sands site itself. If more people could see it, support might be harder to come by.

It didn’t take long for a coalition of environmentalists and Indian activists to rally together. At presidential speaking engagements, numerous rallies and at the White House itself a large and diverse contingent of those opposed to the project made their voices known. In November this year the White House was ringed with anti-XL pipeline activists, with over two hundred arrested.

Shortly after the White House gathering President Barack Obama announced he was deferring approval for the project until after the 2012 election. Proponents of the project are breaking out the same talking points they always use about dangerous energy projects, referring to some ten thousand jobs they envision being created. While enticing during the economic downturn, Obama displayed extraordinary bravery in curtailing a dangerous threat to people and land. If only Canada could likewise put a stop to the mine itself, the victory would be complete.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons