Why tar sands, a toxic ecosystem-destroying asphalt, can’t fill in for declining conventional oil

[ This is a book review of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, 2010 edition, 280 pages, by Andrew Nikiforuk.

tar-sands-aerial-views tar-sands-aerial-views-2tar-sands-plantsMany “energy experts” have said that a Manhattan tar sands project could prevent oil decline in the future.   But that’s not likely. Here are a few reasons why:  

  1. Reaching 5 Mb/d will get increasingly (energy) expensive, because there’s only enough natural gas to mine 29% of tar sands (and limited water as well). Using the energy of the tar sand bitumen itself would greatly reduce the amount that could be produced and dramatically increase the cost and energy to mine it
  2. Since there isn’t enough natural gas, many hope that nuclear reactors will replace natural gas. That would take a lot of time. Kjell Aleklett estimates it would take at least 7 years before a candu nuclear reactor could be built, and the Canadian Parliament estimates it would take 20 nuclear reactors to replace natural gas as a fuel source.
  3. Mined oil sands have been estimated to have an energy returned on invested of EROI of 5.5–6 for mined tar sands (perhaps 10% of the 170 billion barrels), with in situ processing much lower at 3.5–4 (Brandt 2013).  Right now, 90% of the reserves being developed are via higher-EROI mining, yet 80% of remaining oil sands reserves are in situ, so the remaining reserves will be much less profitable
  4. Counting on tar sands to replace declining conventional oil, with an EROI as high as 30 will be hard to accomplish, especially if it turns out to be the case that an EROI of 7 to 14  is required to maintain civilization as we know it (Lambert et al. 2014; Murphy 2011; Mearns 2008; Weissbach et al. 2013)

In a crash program to ramp up production as quickly as possible, production would likely peak in 2040 at 5–5.8 million barrels a day (Mb/d)  (NEB 2013; Soderbergh et al. 2007). Kjell Aleklett estimated that at best a megaproject could get 3.6 Mb/d by 2018.  Even that goal would require Canada to choose between exporting natural gas to the United States or burning most of its reserves in the tar sands to melt bitumen.

So far, Canadian oil sands have contributed to the 5.4 % increase in oil production since 2005, increasing from 0.974 to 2.1 Mb/d in 2014 (2.7 % of world oil production). There are about 170 billion barrels thought to be recoverable, equal to 6 years of world oil consumption.

Already, oil sand production forecasts for 2030 have declined 24 % over the past 3 years, from 5.2 Mb/d in 2013, to 4.8 Mb/d in 2014, to 3.95 Mb/d in June 2015 (CAPP 2015).

At least half the book describes the damage being done that is too long to write about in a book review, and one of the most horrifying accounts of wilderness destruction I’ve ever heard.  But because it’s not a major tourist destination in an area few live in, the expected out-cry of environmentalists is muted and almost non-existent. 

If it’s true that future generations are likely to move north as climate change renders vast areas uninhabitable, what a shame that an area the size of New York is well on the way to being such a toxic cesspool of polluted water, land, and radioactive uranium tailings that it may be uninhabitable for centuries if not millennia.   As author Nikiforuk puts it “Reclamation in the tar sands now amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a corpse.”

Much of this book covers the horrifying, sickening destruction of the ecology of a vast region.  You may think you will not be affected, but very close to major rivers, flimsy dams holding back large lakes of toxic sludge are bound to fail at some point and eventually spill out into the arcti. That would damage  the fragile arctic system and the fish you buy in the grocery store potentially unsafe to eat.

I have rearranged and paraphrased some of what follows, as well as quoted the original text.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

What is arguably the world’s last great oil rush is taking place today.  Alberta has approved nearly 100 mining and in situ projects. That makes the tar sands the largest energy project in the world, bar none.

The size of the resource being exploited has grown exponentially. The 54,000 square mile bitumen-producing zone contains nearly 175 billion barrels in proven reserves, which makes it the single-largest pile of hydrocarbons outside of Saudi Arabia.

But although it’s large, only ten percent is actually recoverable via strip mining, the least energy intensive method. And it’s an energy intensive messy operation – in a load of tar sands, only 10% is bitumen, so the other 90% has to be separated out.  This is done by dumping the sands into a large hot-water “washing machines” where they’re spun around and the bitumen siphoned off.  For every barrel of synthetic crude eventually produced, 4500 pounds of tar sands were dug up, separated, and disposed of. To get the other 90% deep underground takes twice as much energy as the strip-mined tar sands using in-situ steam injected underground, so much that for every three barrels of in-situ oil produced, the energy in one of them was used to get it, though not really, in that natural gas is used currently, 2 billion cubic feet a day, enough to heat all the homes in Canada (Kolbert 2007).

Bitumen is what a desperate civilization mines after it’s depleted its cheap oil. It’s a bottom-of-the-barrel resource, a signal that business as usual in the oil patch has ended. To use a drug analogy, bitumen is the equivalent of scoring heroin cut with sugar, starch, powdered milk, quinine, and strychnine. Calling the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbon “oil” grossly diminishes the resource’s huge environmental footprint. It also distracts North Americans from two stark realities: we are running out of cheap oil, and seventeen million North Americans run their cars on an upgraded version of the smelly adhesive used by Babylonians to cement the Tower of Babel. That ancient megaproject did not end well. Without a disciplined plan for them, the tar sands won’t either.

David Hughes points out that in 1850, 90% of the world traveled by horse and heated with biomass. Now nearly 90% of the world depends on hydrocarbons and consumes 43 times as much energy with 7 times as many people as in 1850.  He questions whether that is really sustainable.  He’s pretty sure people will be upset in the future about squandering so much oil so quickly, since just one barrel of oil equals 8 years of human labor.

Walter Youngquist, author of one of the best books about the history of energy and natural resource use, “Geodestinies”, points out that the tar sands are a valuable long-term resource for Canada which should stretch out their production for as long as possible, as efficiently and sparingly as possible.

Tar sands are limited by natural gas

In 2006, the Oil & Gas Journal noted sadly that Canada had only enough remaining natural gas to recover 29% of the bitumen in the tar sands.

The North American Energy Working Group (NAEWG) reported similar findings that year at a meeting in Houston, Texas. If the tar sands produced five million barrels a day, the group said, oil companies would consume 60 per cent of the natural gas available in Western Canada by 2030. Even the NAEWG found that level of consumption “unsustainable and uneconomical.” As one Albertan recently observed: “Using natural gas to develop oil sands is like using caviar as fertilizer to grow turnips.

Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly conservative private energy consultancy, confirmed the cannibalistic character of natural gas consumption in its 2009 report on the tar sands. Incredibly, industrial development in the tar sands region now consumes 20% of Canadian demand. By 2035, the project could burn up between 25 and 40% of the total national demand, or 6.5 billion cubic feet a day. Such a scenario would drain most of the natural gas contained in the Arctic and Canada’s Mackenzie Delta, as well as Alaska’s North Slope. Armand Laferrère, the president and CEO of Avera Canada, estimates that the tar sands industry could commandeer the majority of Canada’s natural gas supply by 2030.

What are tar sands?

 Tar sands are a half-baked substance, a finite product of up to 300-million-year-old sun-baked algae, plankton, and other marine life, compressed, cooked, and degraded by bacteria.  Good cooking results in light oil. Bad cooking makes bitumen, which is so hydrogen poor that it takes energy-intensive upgrading to make marketable. Fifty per cent of Canada now depends on a half-baked fuel.

It’s a very dirty fuel.  Bitumen is 5% sulfur (about 8 times more than high-quality Texas oil), 0.5% nitrogen, 1,000 parts per million heavy metals such as nickel and vanadium, and also has salts, clays, and  resins.  This can sometimes lead to fouling and corrosion of equipment, causing energy inefficiencies and refinery shutdowns. Between 2003 and 2007, processing lower-quality oil from the tar sands increased energy consumption at U.S. refineries by 47%.

Miners and engineers generally don’t canoe on or fish in the ponds because of two really nasty pollutants: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and naphthenic acids. Of 25 PAH s studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and there are hundreds), 14 are proven human carcinogens. The EPA found that many PAH s produce skin cancers in “practically all animal species tested.” Fish exposed to PAH s typically show “fin erosion, liver abnormalities, cataracts, and immune system impairments leading to increased susceptibility to disease.” Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers recognizes that a “significant increase in processing of heavy oil and tar sands in Western Canada in recent years has led to the rising concerns on worker exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.” In 2003, the ubiquitous presence of PAH s in the tar ponds prompted entomologist Dr. Jan Ciborowski to make another one of those unbelievable tar sands calculations: he estimated that it would take 7 million years for the local midge and black fly populations to metabolize all of the industry’s cancer makers.

Naphthenic acids, which by weight compose 2% of bitumen deposits in the Athabasca region, are not much friendlier than pahs. Industry typically recovers these acids from oil to make wood preservatives or fungicides and flame retardants for textiles. The acids are also one of the key ingredients used in napalm bombs. Naphthenic acids kill fish and most aquatic life.

Upgrading requires so much fuel that this step adds 100 to 200 pounds of CO2 per barrel. This toxic, polluting, ultra-heavy hydrocarbon is a damned expensive substitute for light oil. The Canadian Industrial End-Use Energy Data and Analysis Centre concluded in 2008 that synthetic crude oil made from bitumen had “the highest combustion emission intensity” of five domestic petroleum products and was “the most energy intensive one to process” in Canada.

Bitumen looks like molasses and smells like asphalt, sticky as tar on a cold day. In fact, Canada’s National Centre for Upgrading Technology says that “raw bitumen contains over 50 per cent pitch” and can be used to cover roads.   Because of its stickiness, bitumen cannot move through a pipeline without being diluted by natural gas condensate or light oil.

Why Canadian bitumen should be called tar sands, not oil sands

tar-sand-bitumenIndustry executives  and many politicians hate the word tar sands.  Oil sands sounds much better, implying abundance, easy access, and much cleaner.  The world oil raises investment cash better than the word tar.  It’s more likely to make investors forget that extraction requires a huge amount of energy to mine and upgrade than oil drilling. The Alberta government says it’s okay to describe the resource as oil sands “because oil is what is finally derived from bitumen.” If that lazy reasoning made any sense, tomatoes would be called ketchup and trees called lumber.

Rick George, president and CEO of Suncor, unwittingly made a good argument for calling the stuff tar. Bitumen may contain a hydrocarbon, he said, but you can’t use it as a lubricant because “it contains minerals nearly as abrasive as diamonds.” You can’t pump it, because “it’s as hard as a hockey puck in its natural state.” It doesn’t burn all that well, either; “countless forest fires over the millennia have failed to ignite it.

In 1983, engineer Donald Towson made a good case for calling the resource tar, not oil, in the Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. He argued that the word accurately captures the resource’s unorthodox makeup, which means it is “not recoverable in its natural state through a well by ordinary production methods.” Towson noted that bitumen not only has to be diluted with light oil to be pumped through a pipeline but requires a lot more processing than normal oil. (Light oil shortages are so chronic that industry imported 50,000 barrels by rail last year to the tar sands.) Even after being upgraded into “synthetic crude,” the product requires more pollution-rich refining before it can become jet fuel or gasoline.

Brute force extraction

Bitumen can’t be sucked out of the ground like Saudi Arabia’s black gold. It took an oddball combination of federal and provincial scientists and American entrepreneurs nearly seventy years from the time of Mair’s visit to the tar sands (and billions of Canadian tax dollars) to figure out how to separate bitumen from sand. They finally arrived at a novel solution: brute force.

Extracting bitumen from the forest floor is done in two earth-destroying ways. About 20% of the tar sands are shallow enough to be mined by 3-story-high, 400-ton Caterpillar trucks and $15-million Bucyrus electric shovels.

The open-pit mining operations look more hellish than an Appalachian coal field. To get just ONE barrel of bitumen:

  1. hundreds of trees must be cut
  2. acres of soil removed
  3. wetlands drained
  4. 4 tons of earth dug up to get 2 tons of bituminous sand
  5. boiling water poured over the sand to extract the oil

This costs about $100,000 per flowing barrel, making bitumen one of the planet’s most expensive fossil fuels.


  • Every other day, the open-pit mines move enough dirt and sand to fill Yankee Stadium  yankee-stadium-tar-sands-per-day-volume
  • Since 1967, one major mining company has moved enough earth (2 billion tons) to build seven Panama canals.

In-situ process

Most of the tar sands are so deep that the bitumen must be steamed or melted out of the ground, with the help of a bewildering array of pumps, pipes, and horizontal wells. Engineers call the process in situ (in place). The most popular in situ technology is Steam-Assisted gravity Drainage (SAGD). “Think of a big block of wax the size of a building, SAGD expert Neil Edmunds explains. “Then take a steam hose and tunnel your way in and melt all the wax above. It will drain to the bottom where it can be collected.

SAGD technology burns enough natural gas, for boiling water into steam, to heat six million North American homes every day. In fact, natural gas now accounts for more than 60% of the operating costs for a SAGD project. Using natural gas to melt a resource as dirty as bitumen is, as one executive said, like “burning a Picasso for heat.


  • In 2008, the Canadian federal government revealed that 1 joule of energy was needed to produce only 1.4 joules of energy as gasoline in the SAGD projects.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy calculates that an investment of one barrel of energy yields between four and five barrels of bitumen from the tar sands.
  • Some experts figure that the returns on energy invested may be as low as two or three barrels.

Compare that with oil –on average, it takes 1 barrel of oil (or energy equivalent), to pump out 20 to 60 barrels of cheap oil.

Bitumen’s low-energy returns and earth-destroying production methods explain why the unruly resource requires capital investments up to $126,000 per barrel of daily production and market prices of between $60 and $80. Given its impurities, bitumen often sells for half the price of West Texas crude.

Here are just a few reasons why it’s so expensive:

  • High wages: high-school grads earn more than $100,000 a year driving the world’s largest trucks (400-ton vehicles with the horsepower of a hundred pickup trucks) to move $10,000 worth of bitumen a load.
  • Land: Suncor had started to clear-cut an estimated 290,000 trees for its Steep Bank mine, and surveyors and contractors staked out new mine sites for Shell and Syncrude. Bitumen leases that had sold for $6 an acre in 1978 now sold for $120. (By 2006, companies would be paying $486 per acre.)
  • Equipment: The trucks dump the ore into a crusher, which spits the bitumen onto the world’s largest conveyor belt, about 1,600 yards long.
  • Processing: The bitumen is eventually mixed with expensive light oil and piped to an Edmonton refinery.
  • Shell’s boreal-forest-destroying enterprise required 995 miles of pipe and consumes enough power to light up a city of 136,000 people. It gobbled up enough steel cable to stretch from Calgary to Halifax and poured enough concrete to build thirty-four Calgary Towers. tar-sands-34-calgary-towers-cement-shell-mine
  • The price tag for an open-pit mine plus an upgrader has climbed from $25,000 to between $90,000 and $110,000 per flowing barrel over the last decade. Conventional oil requires, on average, $1,000 worth of infrastructure to remove a flowing barrel a day

The rising price of oil largely obscured these extravagant costs until prices crashed in 2008 and again in 2014.


tar-sand-water-pollutionBiologists and ecologists understood that the environmental consequences of digging up a forest in a river basin that contained 20% of Canada’s fresh water could be enormous. According to Larry Pratt’s lively account of Kahn’s presentation in his book The Tar Sands, one federal government official calculated that the megaproject would dump up to 20,000 tons of bitumen into the Athabasca River every day and destroy the entire Mackenzie basin all the way to Tuk-toyaktuk. Studies and reports completed in 1972 had warned that the construction of “multi-plant operations” would “turn the Fort McMurray area of northeastern Alberta into a disaster region resembling a lunar landscape” or a “biologically barren wasteland.

At a 50 per cent use of groundwater, SAGD generates formidable piles of toxic waste. Companies can’t make steam without first taking the salt and minerals out of brackish water. As a consequence, an average SAGD producer can generate 33 million pounds of salts and water-solvent carcinogens a year, which simply gets trucked to landfills. Because the waste could contaminate potable groundwater, industry calls its salt disposal problem “a perpetual care issue.  Insiders remain alarmed by industry’s rising salt budget. “There is no regulatory oversight of these landfills, and these problems will be enormously difficult to fix,” says one SAGD developer.

Arsenic, a potent cancer-maker, poses another challenge. Industry acknowledges that in situ production (the terrestrial equivalent of heating up the ocean) can warm groundwater and thereby liberate arsenic and other heavy metals from deep sediments. No one knows how much arsenic 78 approved SAGD projects will eventually mobilize into Alberta’s groundwater and from there into the Athabasca River.

Pollution from the tar sands has now created an acid rain problem in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. With much help from 150,000 tonnes of acid-making air-borne pollution from the tar sands and local upgraders, Alberta now produces 25% of Canada’s sulfur dioxide emissions and a third of its nitrogen oxide emissions.  12 per cent of forest soils in the Athabasca and Cold Lake regions are already acidifying. Rain as acidic as black coffee is now falling in the La Loche region just west of Fort McMurray.

Albertans are expected to believe that the world’s largest energy project can displace more than a million tons of boreal forest a day, industrialize a landscape mostly covered by wetlands, create fifty square miles of toxic-waste ponds, spew tons of acidic emissions, and drain as much water from the Athabasca River as that annually used by Toronto, all with no measurable impact on water quality or fish.

Tailings Ponds pollution

Astronauts can see the ponds from space, and politicians typically confuse them with lakes. Miners call the watery mess “tailings.” Industry prefers the term “oil sands process materials” (ospm). Call them what you like, there is no denying that the world’s biggest energy project has spawned one of the world’s most fantastic concentrations of toxic waste, producing enough sludge every day (400 million gallons) to fill 720 Olympic pools.

The ponds are truly a wonder of geotechnical engineering. Made from earth stripped off the top of open-pit mines, they rise an average of 270 feet above the forest floor like strange flat-topped pyramids. By now, the ponds hold more than 40 years of contaminated water, sand, and bitumen.

Amazingly, regulators have allowed industry to build nearly a dozen of them on either side of the Athabasca River. The river, as noted, feeds the Mackenzie River Basin, which carries a fifth of Canada’s fresh water to the Arctic Ocean. The basin ferries wastes from the tar sands to the Arctic too.

The ponds are a byproduct of bad design and industry’s profligate water abuse. Of the 12 barrels of water needed to make one barrel of bitumen, approximately three barrels become mudlike tailings. All in all, approximately 90% of the fresh water withdrawn from the Athabasca River ends up in settling ponds engineered by firms such as Klohn Crippen Berger and owned by the likes of Syncrude, Imperial, Shell, or CNRL. After separating bitumen from sand with hot water and caustic soda, industry pumps the leftover ketchup-like mess into the ponds.

Engineers originally thought that the clay and solids would quickly settle out from the water. But bitumen’s clay chemistry confounded their expectations, and the ponds have been stubbornly growing ever since. They now cover fifty square miles of forest and muskeg. That’s equivalent to the size of Staten Island, New York, or nearly 150 Lake Louises without the Rocky Mountain scenery—or 300 Love Canals. Within a decade, the ponds will cover an area of eighty-five square miles. Experts now say that it might take a thousand years for the clay in the dirty water to settle out.

Given a tailings cleanup cost of $2–3 per barrel of oil, the ponds represent a $10-billion liability.

Every year the ponds quietly swallow thousands of ducks, geese, and shorebirds as well as moose, deer, and beaver.  Industry has tried to keep bird killing to a minimum by using scarecrows affectionately called Bit-U-Men.

In 2003, the intergovernmental Mackenzie River Basin Board identified the tailings ponds as a singular hazard. The board noted that “an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailings ponds could have a catastrophic impact on the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River Basin.” Such catastrophes have happened before. In 2000, a tailings pond operated by the Australian-Romanian company Aurul S.A. broke after a heavy rain in Baia Mare, Romania. The pond released enough cyanide-laced water to potentially kill one billion people,

Bruce Peachey of New Paradigm Engineering. “If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez,” adds the University of Alberta’s David Schindler. (The Valdez released about 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989. PAH concentrations alone in the tar ponds represent about 3,000 Valdezes.)

McDonald was born on the river, and he had trapped, fished, farmed, and worked for the oil companies. He fondly remembered the 1930s and 1940s, when Syrian fur traders exchanged pots and pans for muskrat and beaver furs along the Athabasca River. Families lived off the land then and had feasts of rabbit. They netted jackfish, pickerel, and whitefish all winter long. “Everyone walked or paddled, and the people were healthy,” McDonald said. “No one travels that river anymore. There is nothing in that river. It’s polluted. Once you could dip your cup and have a nice cold drink from that river, and now you can’t.

McDonald had recently told his son not to have any more children: “They are going to suffer. They are going to have a tough time to breathe and will have nothing to drink.” He dismissed the talk of reclaiming waste ponds and open-pit mines as a white-skinned fairy tale. “There is no way in this world that you can put Mother Earth back like it was.

Like most residents of Fort Chipewyan, Ladouceur believes there is definitely something wrong with the water. He has a list of suspects. Abandoned uranium mines on the east end of the lake, for example, have been leaking for years. “God knows how much radium is in this lake,” he says. Then there are the pulp mills and, of course, the tar sands and tar ponds. Ladouceur says his cousin collected yellow scum from the river downstream from the mines and dried it, and “it caught on fire.” Almost everyone in Fort Chip has witnessed oil spills or leaks on the Athabasca River.

Little if any regulation allows the destruction to continue unabated

The Ottawan government concluded that a massive tar-sands mega-scheme could overheat the economy, create steel shortages, unsettle the labor market, drive up the value of the Canadian dollar, and generally change the nation beyond recognition. The tar sands would also be needed to meet future domestic energy needs. “I don’t know why we should feel any obligations to rush into such large-scale production [of tar sands], rather than leave it in the ground for future generations,” reasoned Donald Macdonald.

But since the 1990s the destruction Kahn predicted has gone mostly unobstructed, because the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), the province’s oil and gas regulator, has become a captive regulator, largely funded by industry and mostly directed by lawyers and engineers with ties to the oil patch.

On paper, the ERCB has a mandate to develop and regulate oil and gas production in the public interest and claims to have the world’s most stringent rules. But these “rules” have allowed the board to:

  • Approve oil wells in lakes and parks, permit sour-gas wells — as poisonous as cyanide —near schools, Endorse the carpet-bombing of the province’s most fertile farmland with thousands of coal-bed methane wells and transmission lines
  • Until recently, the board refused to report the names of oil and gas companies not in compliance with its regulations, citing security reasons.
  • The agency has only two mobile air monitors to investigate leaks from 244 sour-gas plants, 573 sweet-gas plants, 12,243 gas batteries, and about 250,000 miles of pipelines.
  • In 2006, the board approved more than 95% of the 60,000applications submitted by industry.
  • After hearing in 2006 that the construction of Suncor’s $7-billion Voyageur Project would draw down groundwater by 300 feet, overwhelm housing and health facilities, and result in air quality exceedances for sour gas, benzene, and particulate matter, the board agreed that the project would “further strain public infrastructure” but declared the impacts “acceptable.”
  • After the Albian Sands Muskeg River Mine Expansion proposed to dig up 31,000 acres of forest, destroy 170 acres of fish habitat along the Muskeg River, and withdraw enough water from the Athabasca River to fill 22,000 Olympic-sized pools a year, the board concluded in 2006 that the megaproject was “unlikely to result in significant adverse environmental effects.

Mountain-top coal removal versus Tar Sands destruction

Mountaintop removal and open-pit bitumen mining are classic forms of strip mining, with a few key differences. In mountaintop removal, the company first scrapes off the trees and soil. Next, it blasts up to 800 feet off the top of mountains (in West Virginia alone, industry goes through 3 million pounds of dynamite every day.) Massive earth movers, like those used in the tar sands, then push the rock, or “excess spoil,” into river valleys, a process industry calls “valley fill.” Finally, giant drag lines and shovels scoop out thin layers of coal.

In the tar sands, companies specialize in forest-top removal. First they clear-cut up to 200,000 trees, then drain all the bogs, fens, and wetlands. Unlike in Appalachia, companies don’t throw the soil and rock (what the industry calls “overburden”) into nearby rivers or streams. Instead, they use the stuff to construct walls for the tar ponds, the world’s largest impoundments of toxic waste.

As earth-destroying economies, mountaintop removal and bitumen mining have few peers in their role as water abusers.

The EPA published its damning findings in a series of studies, despite massive interference along the way by the coal-friendly administration of George W. Bush. In an area encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and parts of Tennessee, mountaintop removal smothered or damaged 1,200miles of headwater streams between 1985 and 2001, which bring life and energy to a forest. The studies were blunt: “Valley fills destroy stream habitats, alter stream chemistry, impact downstream transport of organic matter and . . . destroy stream habitats before adequate pre-mining assessment of biological communities has been conducted.” The EPA predicted that mountaintop removal would soon bury another 1,000 miles of headwater streams. Downstream pollution from the strip mines also contaminated rivers and streams with extreme amounts of selenium, sulfate, iron, and manganese. In addition, mountaintop removal dried up an average of 100water wells a day and dramatically polluted groundwater.  More than 450 mountains were destroyed during a six-year period, as well as 7% (370,000 acres) of the most diverse hardwood forest in North America.

The tar sands have already created a similar footprint in the Mackenzie River Basin, which protects and makes 20% of Canada’s fresh water. Throughout the southern half of the basin, bitumen mining destroys wetlands, drains entire watersheds, guzzles groundwater, and withdraws Olympic amounts of surface water from the Athabasca and Peace rivers. A large pulp mill industry struggles along in the wake of the oil patch, and a nascent nuclear industry threatens to become another water thief in the basin.

To date, no federal or provincial agency has done a cumulative impact study evaluating the industry’s footprint on boreal wetlands and rivers.

Bitumen is one of the most water-intensive hydrocarbons on the planet

If water shortages were to occur, both industry and government have limited courses of action—they can either reduce water consumption or build upstream, off-site storage for water taken from the Athasbasca during high spring flows.    Although industry and government have set goals of three million barrels a day by 2015, Peachey thinks water availability could well constrain such exuberance.

On average, the open-pit mines require 12 barrels of water to make 1 barrel of molasses-like bitumen. [Like tar sands, liquefied coal is often seen as a solution to oil decline, but liquid coal production is also highly limited by water which requires 6 to 15 tons of water per ton of coal-to-liquids(CTL).]

Most of the tar-sands water is needed for a hot-water process (similar to that of a giant washing machine) that separates the hydrocarbons from sand and clay.

Some companies recycle their water as many as 18 times, so every barrel of bitumen consumes a net average of 3 barrels of potable water. Given that the industry produces 1 million barrels of bitumen a day, the tar sands industry virtually exports 3 million barrels of water from the Athabasca River daily.

The industry will need more water as it processes increasingly dirtier bitumen deposits, because now the best ores are being mined.  In the future the clay content will increase, requiring ever larger volumes of water.

City-sized open-pit mines will soon be eclipsed by another water hog in the tar sands: in situ production. About 80% of all bitumen deposits lie so deep under the forest that industry must melt them into black syrup with technologies such as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Twenty-five SAGD projects worth nearly $80 billion could produce 4 million barrels of bitumen a day by 2020 and easily surpass mine production. But as Robert Watson, president of Giant Grosmont Petroleum Ltd., warned in 2003 at a regulatory hearing: “David Suzuki is going to have problems with SAGD. Alberta natural gas consumers are going to have problems with SAGD . . . SAGD is not sustainable”.  Land leased for SAGD production now covers an area the size of Vancouver Island, which means in situ drilling will threaten water resources over an area 50 times greater than that affected by the mines. SAGD is not benign: it generally industrializes the land and its hydrology with a massive network of well pads, pipelines, seismic lines, and thousands of miles of roads.

Although industry spin doctors calculate that it takes about one barrel of raw water (most from deep salty aquifers) to produce 4 barrels of bitumen, most SAGD engineers admit to much higher water-to-bitumen ratios. Actually, SAGD could be removing as much water from underground aquifers as the mines are withdrawing from the Athabasca River within a decade.

Moreover, SAGD’s water thirst appears to be expanding. Industry used to think that it only needed 2 barrels’ worth of steam to melt 1 barrel of bitumen out of deep formations, but the reservoirs have proved uncooperative. Opti-Nexen’s multibillion-dollar Long Lake Project south of Fort McMurray, for example, originally predicted an average steam-oil ratio of 2.4. But Nexen now forecasts a 35% increase in steam (a 3.3 ratio). Most SAGD projects have increased their steam ratios to greater than 3 barrels, with a few projects already as high as 7 or 8.

“A lot of projects may prove uneconomic in their second or third phases because it takes too much steam to recover the oil,” explains one Calgary-based SAGD developer.

High-pressure steam injection into bitumen formations can cause micro earthquakes and heave the surface of land by up to eight inches. Steam stress can also fracture overlying rock, allowing steam to escape into groundwater or the empty chambers of old SAGD operations. (The steam stress problem is so dramatic, says one engineer, that all forecasts of SAGD potential production are probably grossly exaggerated.) Both Imperial Oil and Total have experienced spectacular SAGD failures that left millions of dollars of equipment soaking in mud bogs.

The dramatic loss in steam efficiency for deep bitumen deposits means companies have to drain more aquifers to boil more water. To boil more water, the companies have to use more natural gas (the industry currently burns enough gas every day to keep the population of Colorado warm), which in turn means more greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, SAGD could consume 40% of Canadian demand by 2035.

SAGD’S frightful natural gas addiction is now driving shallow drilling as well as coal-bed methane developments on prime agricultural land throughout central Alberta. (Coal-bed methane is the tar sands of natural gas: it requires more wells and more land disturbance than conventional gas and poses a huge threat to groundwater, which often moves along coal seams.) The quick removal of natural gas from underground pools and coal deposits creates a void that could, over time, fill up with either water or migrating gas. Nobody really knows at the moment how many old gas pools connect with water aquifers or how many are filling up with water. Bruce Peachey estimates that natural gas drilling could result in the eventual disappearance of 350 to 530 billion cubic feet of water in arid central Alberta.

Due to spectacular growth in SAGD (nearly $4 billion worth of construction a year until 2015), Alberta Environment can no longer accurately predict industry’s water needs. The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based energy watchdog, reported that the use of fresh water for SAGD in 2004 increased three times faster than the government forecast of 110 million cubic feet a year. Government has made a conscious effort to get SAGD operations to switch to using salty groundwater. However, since it costs more to desalinate the water and creates a salt disposal problem, SAGD could be still be drawing more than 50 per cent of its volume from freshwater sources by 2015.

The biggest issue for SAGD production may be changes in the water table over time. “If you take out a barrel of oil from underground, it will be replaced with a barrel of water from somewhere,” explains Bruce Peachey. The same rule applies to natural gas. Peachey figures that if all the depleted gas pools near the tar sands were to refill with water, the water debt could amount to half the Athabasca River’s annual flow. This vacuum effect may also explain why the most heavily drilled energy states in the United States are experiencing the most critical water shortages.

Brad Stelfox, a prominent land-use ecologist who works for both industry and government, notes that a century ago all water in Alberta was drinkable. “Three generations later all water is non-potable and must be chemically treated,” he points out. “Is that sustainable?

Tar sands will also destroy  Saskatchewan province

By 2020, three provincial pipelines from Fort McMurray will ferry three million barrels of raw bitumen a day to Upgrader Alley, and in so doing transform the counties of Strathcona, Sturgeon, and Lamont and the City of Fort Saskatchewan into a “world class energy hub.” Just about every company with a mine or SAGD project in Fort McMurray, from Total to Statoil, has joined the rush to build nearly $45 billion worth of upgraders, refineries, and gasification plants. The colossal development will not only industrialize a 180-square-mile piece of prime farmland straddling the North Saskatchewan River (an area half the size of Edmonton) but consume the same amount of water as one million Edmontonians.

A landscape that once supported potato and dairy farms will soon be dotted with supersized industrial bitumen factories exporting synthetic crude and jet fuel to Asia and the United States.

Bitumen upgraders are among the world’s most proficient air polluters because, as the 2006 Alberta’s Heavy Oil and Oil Sands guidebook notes, they are “all about turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” Removing impurities from bitumen or adding hydrogen requires dramatic feats of engineering that produce two to three times more nitrogen dioxides (a smog maker), sulfur dioxide (an acid-rain promoter), volatile organic compounds (an ozone developer), and particulate matter (a lung and heart killer) than the refining of conventional oil.

From the government’s point of view, a multibillion-dollar upgrader is much more appealing than a farm. A typical midsized upgrader, for example, can pipe $450 million worth of taxes into federal and provincial coffers every year for twenty-five years. The construction of half a dozen upgraders can employ twenty thousand people for a decade and keep the economy growing like an algae bloom.

Relative to conventional crude, bitumen typically sells at such a heavy discount that U.S. refineries equipped to handle the product can turn over incredible profits. “The lost profits and lost opportunities are simply too large to ignore,” concluded Dusseault. But the Alberta government did ignore them, and by 2007 bitumen’s lower price differential amounted to a loss of $2 billion a year. Money is lost whenever raw bitumen is exported.

The oil patch is the second-highest water user in the North Saskatchewan River basin (using 18% of water withdrawals). The upgrader boom will make the petroleum sector number one. A 2007 report for the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance says that “nearly all of the projected increase in surface water use will be in the petroleum sector.” By 2015, the upgraders’ demands on river water will increase by 278%; by 2025, 339%. John Thompson, author of the report, says the absence of an authoritative study on the river’s ecosystem, an Alberta trademark, leaves a big hole. “We don’t know what it takes to maintain the river’s health.” Providing energy for the upgraders will also take a toll on water. Sherritt International and its investment partner, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, are proposing to strip-mine a 120-square-mile area just east of Upgrader Alley for coal.

Gasification plants would render the coal into synthetic gas and hydrogen to help power the upgraders. Current estimates suggest that the project will consume somewhere between 70 million and 317 million cubic feet of water from the North Saskatchewan annually. Strip-mining farmland will also “affect groundwater aquifers and surface water hydrology.

Enbridge, the largest transporter of crude to the U.S., also wants to open the floodgates to Asia with a proposed $5-billion global superhighway, the Northern Gateway Project. Now backed by ten anonymous investors, the project would ferry 525,000 barrels of dilbit (diluted bitumen) from Edmonton to the deep-water port of Kitimat, B.C., to help put more cars on the road in Shanghai. Paul Michael Wih-bey, a tar sands promoter, describes the pipeline as part of a grand “China-Alberta-U.S. Nexus” and “ a new global market order based on secure supplies of reasonably priced heavy oils.” The dual 700-mile-long pipeline would also import 200,000 barrels of condensate or diluent from Russia or Malaysia to help lubricate the export line. Enbridge calls the Northern Gateway Project “an important part of Canada’s energy future,” and the company has hired a former local mla and cbc journalist to talk up the project in rural communities. Given that the megaproject would cross 1,000 streams and rivers that now protect some of the world’s last remaining salmon fisheries, it was received coldly in many quarters.

Given that NAFTA rules force Canada to maintain a proportional export to the United States (Mexico wisely rejected the proportionality clause on energy exports), these three new pipelines will undermine our nation’s energy security. In the event of an international energy emergency, the pipelines guarantee that the United States will get the greatest share of Canadian oil. “It hasn’t dawned on most Canadians that their government has signed away their right to have first access to their own energy supplies,” says Gordon Laxer, director of the Parkland Institute.

The export of bitumen to retrofitted U.S. refineries will dirty waterways, air sheds, and local communities. About 70% of current refinery expansion proposed in the United States (a total of 17 renovations and five new refineries) is dedicated to bitumen from the tar sands. Companies such as BP, Marathon, Shell, and ConocoPhillips have announced plans to expand and refit nearly half a dozen older refineries in the Great Lakes region to process bitumen.

On the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, refineries are expanding in Sarnia’s notorious Chemical Valley. The area already boasts more than 65 petrochemical facilities, including a Suncor refinery that has been upgrading bitumen for 55 years. Shell wants to add a bitumen upgrader to the mix, and Suncor just completed a billion-dollar addition to handle more dirty oil. The region currently suffers from some of the worst air pollution in Canada. Industrial waste from Chemical Valley has feminized male snapping turtles in the St. Clair River, turned 45% of the whitefish in Lake St. Clair “intersexual,” and exposed 2,000 members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to a daily cocktail of 105 carcinogens and gender-benders. Newborn girls outnumber boys by two to one on the reserve. Two-thirds of the children have asthma, and 40% of pregnant women experience miscarriages. Calls for a thorough federal investigation have gone unheeded.

The marketplace and quislinglike regulators are directing our country’s insecure economic future without a vote or even so much as a polite conversation over coffee. Canadians can now choose between two nightmares: an air-fouling, river-drinking economy that upgrades the world’s dirtiest hydrocarbon on prime farmland or a traditional staples economy that exports cheap bitumen and thousands of jobs to polluting refineries in China, the Gulf Coast, and the Great Lakes while making Eastern Canada ever more dependent on the uncertain supply of foreign oil. There is currently no plan C.

The rapid development  of the tar sands has made climate change a joke about Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. Everybody thinks reducing carbon dioxide emissions needs to be done and expects Somebody will do it. Anybody could have reduced emissions, but Nobody did. Everybody now blames Somebody, when in fact Nobody asked Anybody to do anything in the first place.

In meetings and in its proposed rules for geologic storage, the EPA has strongly recommended that government map out the current state of groundwater and soil near potential storage sites. Once CO2 begins to be injected at carefully chosen sites, the EPA has proposed that regulators track CO2 plumes in salt water, monitor local aquifers above and beyond the storage site to assure protection of drinking water, and sample the air over the site for traces of leaking CO2. And this isn’t something to be done over twenty or fifty years—the EPA believes this oversight needs to be maintained for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Just how likely is leakage? If Florida’s experience with the deep injection of wastewater is any indication, there will be leakage, and lots of it. Since the 1980s, 62 Florida facilities have been pumping three gigatons—0.7 cubic miles—of dirty water full of nitrate and ammonia into underground saltwater caves, some 2,953 feet deep, every year to keep the ocean clean. During the 1990s, the wastewater migrated into at least three freshwater zones, contaminating drinking water, though the EPA didn’t acknowledge the scale of the problem until 2003. David Keith, who has studied the Florida problem, says surprises will occur with carbon capture; regulations must adapt and be based on results from a dozen large-scale pilot projects. Absolutely prohibiting CO2 leakage would be a mistake, he says, since “it seems unlikely that large-scale injection of CO2 can proceed without at least some leakage.” Keith suspects the risks to groundwater will be

Other scientists, such as a group at the U.S. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, suspect keeping CO2 out of groundwater will be more difficult than managing liquid waste in Florida. They say CO2 injection involves more complex hydrologic processes than storing liquid waste, and it could even force salt water into freshwater sources. The group, now studying CCS and groundwater, says scientists don’t have a good idea of how CCS could change the pressure at the groundwater table level, impact discharge and recharge zones, and affect drinking water.

Nuclear power and tar sands

In 1956, Manley Natland had the kind of energy fantasy that the tar sands invite with predictable regularity. As the Richfield Oil Company of California geologist sat in a Saudi Arabian desert watching the sun go down, it occurred to him that a 9-kiloton nuclear bomb could release the equivalent of a small, fiery sun in the stubborn Alberta tar sands deposits. Detonating the bomb underground would make a massive hole into which boiled bitumen would flow like warmed corn syrup. “The tremendous heat and shock energy released by an underground nuclear explosion would be distributed so as to raise the temperature of a large quantity of oil and reduce its viscosity sufficiently to permit its recovery by conventional oil field methods,” Natland later wrote. He thought that the collapsing earth might seal up the radiation, and the bitumen could provide the United States with a secure supply of oil for years to come. Two years after his desert vision, Natland and other Richfield Oil representatives, the Alberta government, and the United States Atomic Energy Commission held excited talks about Project Cauldron, which planners later renamed Project Oil Sands. Natland selected a bomb site sixty-four miles south of Fort McMurray, and the U.S. government generously agreed to supply a bomb. Richfield acquired the lease site. Alberta politicians celebrated the idea of rapid and easy tar sands development, and the Canadian government set up a technical committee. Popular Mechanics magazine enthused about “using nukes to extract oil.

Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist and hawkish father of the hydrogen bomb, championed Natland’s vision. In an era when nuclear proponents got giddy about nuclear-powered cars, Teller regarded Project Cauldron as another opportunity to hammer the threat of nuclear swords into peaceful ploughs. “Using the nuclear car to move the fossil horse” was a promising idea, the bomb maker wrote. Chance, however, intervened. Canadian Prime Minister John D. Diefenbaker didn’t relish the idea of nuclear proliferation, or of the United States meddling in the Athabasca tar sands. The Soviets had experimented with nuking oil deposits only to learn that there was no market for radioactive oil. The promise of cheaper conventional sources in Alaska also lured Richfield Oil away from Project Cauldron. The moment passed for Natland. But the idea of using a nuclear car to fuel a hydrocarbon horse never really died, and these days some new scheme to run the tar sands on nuclear power emerges weekly with great fanfare. The CEO of Husky Energy, John Lau, seems interested, and Gary Lunn, the federal minister of natural resources, says he’s “very keen,” adding that it’s a matter of “when and not if.” Roland Priddle, former director of the National Energy Board and the Energy Council of Canada’s 2006 Energy Person of the Year, speaks enthusiastically about the synthesis “of nuclear and oil sands energy,” as does Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Bruce Power, an Ontario-based company, has proposed four reactors at a cost of $12 billion for tar sands production in Peace River country. France’s nuclear giant Avera wants to build a couple of nukes in the tar sands too. Saskatchewan, an Alberta wannabe, has proposed two nuclear facilities: one near the tar sands and one on Lake Diefenbaker. Employees of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (aecl), a federal Crown corporation that designs and markets candu reactors, told a Japanese audience in 2007 that “nuclear plants provide a sustainable solution for oil sands industry energy requirements, and do not produce ghg emissions.” If realized, these latest

In sunny Alberta, nukes for oil are being celebrated these days as some sort of magic bullet for carbon pollution as well as for rapid depletion of natural gas supplies. Natural gas now fuels rapid bitumen production, and it takes approximately 1,400 cubic feet of natural gas to produce and upgrade a barrel, equal to nearly a third of the barrel’s energy content. The tar sands are easily Canada’s biggest natural gas customer. They burn the blue flame to generate electricity to run equipment and facilities, they convert it as a source of hydrogen for upgrading, and they use it to heat water. SAGD operations, which need anywhere from two to four barrels of steam to melt deep bitumen deposits, are super-sized natural gas consumers. Thanks to the unexpectedly low quality of many bitumen deposits, SAGD requires more steam and therefore more natural gas every year.

Nuclear plants overheat without regular baths of cool water. (This explains why current proposals have placed nuclear reactors on the Peace River, one of Alberta’s longest rivers, or Lake Diefenbaker, the source of 40 per cent of the water for Saskatchewan.) The Darlington and Pickering facilities in Ontario require approximately two trillion gallons of water for cooling a year, about nineteen times more water than the tar sands use. In fact, water has become an Achilles heel for the nuclear industry. Recent heat waves in Europe and the United States either dried up water supplies or forced nuclear plants to discharge heated wastewater into shallow rivers, killing all the fish.

How tar sands corrupt democracy

  • When revenue comes from oil, citizens pay lower taxes, and all the government has to do is approve more tar sands projects, regardless of the harm they will do to the environment
  • Without taxation, people don’t pay much attention to how it’s spent, ask questions, or vote.
  • In turn, oil revenue driven governments are less likely to listen to voters, and better able to buy votes and influence people, enrich their friends and family
  • These oil-corrupted government leaders then use some of the money to discourage thought, debate, or dissent. For example, the Alberta government spends $14 million a year on 117 employees to tell Albertans what to think, and another $25 milloin in convincing Alberta’s citizens and U.S. oil consumers that tar sands are quite green and not as nasty as some have portrayed.
  • In Mexico and Indonesia, oil funds have propped up one party rule, used the money to buy guns, tanks and other means of putting rebellions down.

[ Canadians above all should really read this book, because they’re being robbed now and for millennia in the future of the financial gains and a stretched-out, longer use of this energy for their own nation.  The tar sands are open to anyone to exploit.  This is because most people who work in the oil industry know that peak oil is real and the tar sands are the last place on earth where oil companies can make an investment and grow production. ]

“In the big picture, deepwater oil and the oilsands are the only game left in town.  You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you have to schlep a ton of sand to get a barrel of oil,” notes CIBC chief economist Jeffrey Rubin.


Mair didn’t see the grand and impossible future of Canada until the steamer docked at Fort McMurray, a “tumble-down cabin and trading-store.” That’s where he encountered the impressive tar sands, what Alexander Mackenzie had described as “bituminous fountains” in 1778 and what federal botanist John Macoun almost a century later called “the ooze.” Federal surveyor Robert Bell described an “enormous quantity of asphalt or thickened petroleum” in 1882. Mair called the tar sands simply “the most interesting region in all the North.” The tar was everywhere. It leached from cliffs and broke through the forest floor. Mair observed giant clay escarpments “streaked with oozing tar” and smelling “like an old ship.” Wherever he scraped the bank of the river, it slowly filled with “tar mingled with sand.” The Cree told him that they boiled the stuff to gum and repair canoes. One night Mair’s party burned the tar like coal in a campfire.

Against all economic odds, visionary J. Howard Pew, then the president of Sun Oil and the seventh-richest man in the United States, had built a mine and an upgrader (now Suncor) on the banks of the Athabasca River in 1967. Pew’s folly, then the largest private development ever built in Canada, would lose money for twenty years by producing the world’s most expensive oil at more than $30 a barrel.

But Pew reasoned that “no nation can long be secure in this atomic age unless it be amply supplied with petroleum.” Given the inevitable depletion of cheap oil, he recognized that the future of North America’s energy supplies lay in expensive bitumen.

Project Independence, the title given to U.S. government energy policy in the early 1970s. The policy stated that “there is an advantage to moving early and rapidly to develop tar sands production” because it “would contribute to the availability of secure North American oil supplies.

Mining Canada’s forest for bitumen would give the United States some time to figure out how to economically exploit its own dirty oil in places such as Colorado’s oil shales and Utah’s tar sands.

Given the current energy crisis and OPEC’s reluctance to boost oil production, Kahn hailed the bituminous sands of northern Alberta as a global godsend. He then presented a tar sands crash-development program to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Energy Minister Donald Macdonald.

Like everything about Kahn, his rapid development scheme was big and bold. (A crash program, said Kahn, was really “overnight go-ahead decision making.”) This one called for the construction of 20 gigantic open-pit mines with upgraders on the scale of Syncrude, soon to be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. The futurist calculated that the tar sands could eventually pump out 2 to 3 million barrels of oil a day, all for export. Canada wouldn’t have to spend a dime, either. A global consortium formed by the governments of Japan, the United States, and some European countries would put up the cash: a cool $20 billion. Korea would provide 30 to 40,000 temporary workers, who would pay dues and contribute to pension plans to keep the local unions happy. Kahn pointed out that Canada would receive ample benefits: the full development of an under-exploited resource, high revenues, a refining industry, a secure market, and lots of international trade. The audacity of the vision stunned journalist Clair Balfour at the Financial Post, who wrote, “It would be as though the 10,000 square miles of oil sands were declared international territory, for the international benefit of virtually every nation but Canada.

In the late 1990s, development exploded abruptly with the force of a spring flood on the Athabasca River. The region’s fame spread to France, China, South Korea, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Norway. Everyone wanted a piece of the magic sand-pile. The Alberta government, with its Saudi-like ambitions, promised that the tar sands would be “a significant source of secure energy” in a world addicted to oil. But since then, greed and moral carelessness have turned the wonder of Canada’s Great Reserve to dread.

Tar sand investments now total nearly $200 billion. That hard-to-imagine sum easily makes the tar sands the world’s largest capital project. The money comes from around the globe, including France, Norway, China, Japan, and the Middle East. But approximately 60% of the cash hails from south of the border. An itinerant army of bush workers from China, Mexico, Hungary, India, Romania, and Atlantic Canada, among other places, is now digging away.

The Alberta tar sands are a global concern. The Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (taqa), an expert in low-cost conventional oil production, bought a $2-billion chunk of bitumen real estate just to be closer to the world’s largest oil consumer, the United States. South Korea’s national oil company owns a piece of the resource, as does Norway’s giant national oil company, Statoil, which just invested $2 billion. Total, the world’s fourth-largest integrated oil and gas company, with operations in more than 130 countries, plans to steam out two billion barrels of bitumen. Shell, the global oil baron, lists the Athabasca Oil Sands Project as its number-one global enterprise and plans to produce nearly a million barrels of oil a day — more oil than is produced daily in all of Texas. Synenco Energy, a subsidiary of Sinopec, the Chinese national oil company, says it will assemble a modular tar sands plant in China, Korea, and Malaysia, then float the whole show down the Mackenzie River. Japan Canada Oil Sands Limited has put up money.

Over 50,000 temporary foreign workers have poured into Alberta to feed the bitumen boom.  Abuse of these guest workers is so widespread that the Alberta government handled 800 complaints in just one three-month period in 2008.

With just 5% of the world’s population, the United States now burns up 20.6 million barrels of oil a day, or 25% of the world’s oil supply. Thanks to bad planning and an aversion to conservation, the empire must import two-thirds of its liquid fuels from foreign suppliers, often hostile ones. “The reality is that at least one supertanker must arrive at a U.S. port every four hours,” notes Swedish energy expert Kjell Aleklett. “Any interruption in this pattern is a threat to the American economy.” This crippling addiction has increasingly become an unsustainable wealth drainer. In 2000, the United States imported $200 billion worth of oil, thereby enriching many of the powers that seek to undermine the country. By 2008, it was paying out a record $440 billion annually for its oil.

The undeclared crash program in the tar sands has transformed Canada’s role in the strategic universe of oil. By 1999, the megaproject had made Canada the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States. By 2002, Canada had officially replaced Saudi Arabia and Mexico as America’s number-one oil source, an event of revolutionary significance. Canada currently accounts for 20% of U.S. oil imports (that’s 12% of American consumption), and the continuing development of the tar sands will double those figures. Incredibly, only two in ten Americans and three in ten Canadians can accurately identify the country that now keeps the U.S. economy tanked up.

The rapid development of the Alberta tar sands has also served as a dirty-oil laboratory. Utah has 60 billion barrels of tar sands that are deeper and thinner, and therefore uglier, than Alberta’s resource. To date, appalling costs and extreme water issues have kept Americans from ripping up 2.4 million acres of western landscape. But that may soon change. Republican Utah Senator Orrin G. Hatch said that ”U.S. companies active in the tar sands are only waiting for the U.S. government to adopt a policy similar to Alberta’s which promotes rather than bars the development of the unconventional resources”.

In 2006, a three-volume report by the Strategic Unconventional Fuels Task Force to the U.S. Congress gushed that Alberta’s rapid development approach to “stimulate private investment, streamline permitting processes and accelerate sustainable development of the resource” was one that should be “adapted to stimulate domestic oil sands.” Even with debased fiscal and environmental rules, though, the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory has calculated that it would take 13 years and a massively expensive crash program to coax 2.4 million barrels a day out of the U.S. tar sands. A 2008 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service concluded that letting Canada do all the dirty work in the tar sands made more sense than destroying watersheds in the U.S. Southwest: “In light of the environmental and social problems associated with oil sands development, e.g., water requirements, toxic tailings, carbon dioxide emissions, and skilled labor shortages, and given the fact that Canada has 175 billion barrels of reserves . . . the smaller U.S. oil sands base may not be a very attractive investment in the near-term.

In 2009, the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan think tank that informs public policy south of the border, critically examined the tar sands opportunity. The council’s report, entitled “Canadian Oil Sands,” found that the project delivered “energy security benefits and climate change damages, but that both are limited.” Natural gas availability, water scarcity, and “public opposition due to local social and environmental impacts” could clog the bitumen pipeline, the report said.

Criminal Intelligence Service Alberta, a government agency that shares intelligence with police forces, reported in 2004 that the boom had created fantastic opportunities for the Hell’s Angels, the Indian Posse, and other entrepreneurial drug dealers: “With a young vibrant citizen base and net incomes almost double the national average, Fort McMurray represents a tremendous market for illegal substances.” By some estimates, as much as $7 million worth of cocaine now travels up Highway 63 every week on transport trucks. According to the Economist, a journal devoted to studying global growth, about “40 per cent of the [tar sands] workers test positive for cocaine or marijuana in job screening and post accident tests.” Health food stores can’t keep enough urine cleanse products in stock for workers worried about random drug trials. There is even a black market in clean urine.

After years of denial and delays, the Alberta Cancer Board announced in May 2008 that it would conduct a comprehensive review of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. The peer-reviewed report, released in 2009, completely vindicated O’Connor and the people of Fort Chipewyan. The study found that the northern community had a 30 per cent higher cancer rate than models would predict and a “higher than expected” rate of cases of cancers of the blood, lymphatic system, and soft tissue.

Many of the companies digging up wetlands along the Athabasca River, such as Exxon (part of the Syncrude consortium) and Shell, have already left an expensive legacy in Louisiana. Like Alberta, the bayou state has been a petro-state for years, producing 30 per cent of the domestic crude oil in the United States. For more than three decades, the state’s oil industry compromised coastal marshes and wetlands with ten thousand miles of navigational canals and thirty-five thousand miles of pipelines. These industrial channels, carved into swamps, invited salt water inland, which in turn killed the trees and grasses that kept the marshes intact. The U.S. Geological Survey suspects that the sucking of oil from the ground has also abetted the erosion. Since the 1930s, nearly one-fifth of the state’s precious delta has disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the loss of coastal wetlands now threatens the security of the industry that helped to destroy them. Without the protective buffer of wetlands, wells, pipelines, refineries, and platforms are more vulnerable to storms and hurricanes.  Federal scientists now lament that the state loses a wetland the size of a football field every 38 minutes.

The government’s own records show that it has knowingly permitted the province’s reclamation liability to rocket from $6 billion in 2003 to $18 billion in 2008. If not addressed, the public cost of cleanup could eventually consume more than two decades’ worth of royalties from the tar sands. The ERCB holds but $35 million in security deposits for $18-billion worth of abandoned oil field detritus.

Quotes from the book:

  • “Control oil and you control nations; control food and you control the people.” Henry Kissinger, U.S. National security advisor, 1970
  • Vaclav Smil, Canada’s eminent energy economist says that the main problem is unbridled energy consumption and points out that “All economies are just subsystems of the biosphere and the first law of ecology is that no trees grow to heaven. If we don’t reduce our energy use, the biosphere may do the scaling down for us in a catastrophic manner”.
  • “I do not think there is any use trying to make out that the tar sands are other than a ‘second line of defense’ against dwindling oil supplies.” Karl A. Clark, research engineer, letter to Ottawa, 1947.  


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Kolbert, E. November 12, 2007. Unconventional Crude. Canada’s synthetic fuels boom. New Yorker.

Lambert, J G., C.A.S. Hall, et al. 2014. Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy 64:153–167.

Mearns, E. 2008. The global energy crisis and its role in the pending collapse of the global economy. Presentation to the Royal Society of Chemists, Aberdeen, Scotland. See http://www. theoildrum.com/node/4712

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2 Responses to Why tar sands, a toxic ecosystem-destroying asphalt, can’t fill in for declining conventional oil

  1. Jeff W says:

    Reading about the scale of environmental degradation that the Alberta tar sands operations causes it’s hard not to see it as an analog to the behavior of an increasingly desperate addict that is willing to do whatever it takes to get the next fix.

    Regarding the limits on extraction due to available natural gas, there is a proposed work-around: the Site C dam[1]. The addict is endlessly creative in pursuit of his elixir…

    If all this carnage was in the service of building a transition to some cleaner sustainable future it might be excusable; to commit it just to keep to our current insane consumer culture going a bit longer is a crime against Life itself.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Site_C_dam

  2. Gregory Ross says:

    Another orgy of valuable info. Thanks Alice. Judging by the paucity of comments it seems that your blog has a lot less traffic than it deserves.