Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tar Sands 101 and Tar Sands Blockade Activists

An area of remote Alberta that is being
impacted by tar sand strip mining.
Click for photo credit.
Perhaps you've heard of the controversy over the Keystone Pipeline.  Much has been written about it, and there is certainly tremendous political air around the topic.  Let me provide some facts.

Developers seek to build a pipeline from northern Alberta to Texas to bring crude oil derived from tar sands in Canada to refineries located from Illinois to Texas.  The total amount of oil produced from this network could be more than 500,000 barrels per day.

There is no doubt that the Athabascan oil sand fields are a rich oil resource.  Indeed, this area is one of the largest deposits of oil in the world.  However, the extraction of this oil produces some serious environmental impacts as a result of the extractive process and the way that the oil exists in nature.

The oil is actually mined, not pumped.  The sticky oil is enmeshed within sand deposits.  Thus, the sand is dug out through open pit mines.  The sand extends through over 54,000 square miles of Canadian wilderness, including many fragile wetlands and areas of permafrost.  Can you imagine the amount of environmental devastation that will be wrought in the extraction of these materials?  There are some processes that pump steam into the ground to liquify the oil for extraction without mining the sand.  It is estimated that 80% of the reserves could be extracted in this way.

The processing of tar sands is a very energy and water intensive process.  It uses a great deal of natural gas to extract the oil (roughly 40% of Alberta's natural gas usage) and 2-4 gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced.  The sand is heated with hot water and the water and sediment processed to remove the oil.  The waste water and waste sediment issues are immense.  Harmful chemicals can be released into the environment in processing.

However, these are largely Canada's problems and the development of this energy resource is Canada's business.  But, it becomes the business and interest of Americans when the crude, unprocessed material is shipped to areas across the United States from Illinois to Texas in a pipeline network over 1000 miles long.

Part of the network is in place and has been approved by the government.  However, due to environmental concerns over the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer, there have been delays until alternative plans can be developed.

In the meantime, the reality of the impact of the pipeline in communities has hit home.  A great deal of activism against the pipeline has sprouted up in the last year and opposition is growing.  Take a look at this group, the Tar Sands Blockade, that has focused on eminent domain issues as one of their key concerns.  They are also concerned about leaks from the pipeline and water contamination. 

In a perfect world, tar sands would be the last energy resource we developed before we turn off the dirty energy engine as we transition into green energy infrastructure.  There are so many environmental problems associated with tar sand mining and processing, and so many other sources of energy, that its development seems premature and unnecessary.  It reminds me a bit of the fracking issue with natural gas.  There are other options and it doesn’t make sense to develop these energy sources at this point of time using these environmentally problematic processes.  Imagine what we could do if we invested the funds being spent on the pipeline on smart grid technology, distributed energy systems, and green clean energy infrastructure.

No comments: