Northern Exposure – shining a light on Canadas dirty tar sands oil

oilimportsThere is little question that America remains addicted to oil just as we were five years ago when then President George W. Bush famously included that statement in his 2006 State of the Union address. While this chart shows the temporary drop in oil imports largely attributable to the recession, America still continues to import an unbelievable 11,000,000 barrels of oil per day.

There has been considerable focus on where this oil comes from (and hence, where our money goes to) given that the majority of the countries supplying our oil are known for human-rights violations, instability and civil strife, undemocratic regimes or purported links to terrorists. As a result, some have pointed to our stable, democratic neighbor to the north as an ideal energy supplier. However, the dark side of Canada’s dirty oil production is finally coming to light, and it is clear that the unconventional oil from tar sands is not only risky and polluting, but the wrong direction when alternatives such as better fuel efficiency and sustainable biofuels produced here in the Southeast are viable options.

Vast stretches of Canada’s boreal forests cover a mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen – a heavy, black viscous oil. To even access these deposits, the forest must first be drained of its water, and then clear cut of all its trees. Because the oil is thoroughly mixed with other elements, the tar sands (euphemistically called ‘oil sands’) must be mined, extracted, separated and ‘upgraded’ in an energy-intensive and water-hungry process in order to develop a usable crude oil.  There are myriad reasons why tar sands are unsustainable from the destruction of a vital and vibrant forest and wetland ecosystem to the overuse of valuable fresh water resources; from the health and cultural impacts on indigenous communities to the increase of greenhouse gases and other pollutants both in Canada and downstream in the U.S.

tarsandsNational Geographic rightly characterized the tar sands disaster as ‘scraping bottom’ noting it has only become economically viable because of high global oil prices.  I have seen only pictures such as these of the oil sands, but a friend who has witnessed the destruction first-hand describes it as “looking out over Mordor,” a reference to the sinister part of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings.

The environmental destruction aside, the use of tar sands by the U.S. government is technically against the law.  Our organization, along with the Sierra Club, filed suit in 2010 against the U.S. Department of Defense for violating Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which prohibits federal use of fuels that have a higher greenhouse gas life cycle than conventional petroleum. This law hasn’t stopped Canada’s tar sands from becoming our largest single source of imported crude oil, and we import approximately 2/3 of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million barrels/day. The U.S. Department of State is considering a permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline to cross into the U.S. despite the objections from some members of Congress as well as some of the general public.  If permitted, this pipeline would increase tar sands importation as well as refinery expansion and the accompanying health impacts here in the U.S.

Even if the tar sands were problem free, they still would not be a solution to our long-term energy needs. At some point, when all of the boreal forests are mined and destroyed, we would still require new energy sources to power our transportation networks. Real solutions will come from a combination of options: increasing fuel economy even more than Congress did in 2007 and  President Obama did in April 2010, increasing the deployment of electric vehicles powered by renewable sources, growing our network of mass transit, light rail and high-speed rail, accelerating research to generate sustainably produced biofuels here in the Southeast, and incentivizing private sector development of clean alternatives through a carbon pricing system.

bettingoncleanenergyAnd so I come full circle back to presidential speeches and the State of the Union address. On a visit to North Carolina last month, President Obama warned there is a danger of “America falling behind.” While he wasn’t speaking solely about our lack of leadership in the clean energy economy, there is ample evidence we are falling behind China, India and other nations in that regard.

As we await President Obama’s second State of the Union address tonight, many expect him to focus on growing jobs and increasing our competitiveness in the global market.  I remain hopeful that the President will speak directly about the myriad home-grown, clean energy options our nation can and must harness to accomplish these goals.  Lending support for Canada’s tar sands or ‘clean coal’ projects here at home simply prolongs our dependence on the dirtiest energy sources on the planet.

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3 Comments

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Mr. Smith makes the case that oil sands are “dirty” water-intense deposits to produce oil for fuel etc. But, actually so is “conventional” oil and the many heavy oil deposits being exploited to date – e.g. California heavy oil production is every bit as intense as Alberta’s oil sands deposits. Petroleum is one of the most energy-dense forms of fuel available on earth. To replace such a fuel source with solar cells and/or wind turbines would require the usurping of millions of acres of land for these uses. If you believe that such a huge enterprise would have no impact on land use capabilities then I have some ocean-front property to sell you in Arizona!


Comment by D. Jaques on January 26, 2011 9:33 am


D. Jaques – California heavy oil from thermal recovery is bad, unsustainable and is as well prohibited by the same legislation for use by the US government Mr. Smith mentions. Its not necessary to replace ALL the energy we use with renewables, by powering down with mass transit and rail a huge amount of mobility energy need not be replaced. eg. See England at around $2100 in GDP per barrel of oil versus I think around $1100 for the US.


Comment by M. Reynolds on February 24, 2011 7:33 pm


Where does the US want to buy their oil? From people that hate them or your neighbors and largest trading partner.
Sure the mid east just has to move some sand around to find their oil, but what about their enviromental methods and human rights violations?
I think all this nonsense about the “oil” sands is put up and paid for by the Saudi’s, as they have the most to lose.
China and India seem to want Canada’s oil so who will lose out in the long run??


Comment by Ian on May 7, 2012 1:12 pm


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