Rex Weyler on “what to do” about limits to growth, peak energy

Preface. Professor Nate Hagens is teaching a class at the University of Minnesota about the state of the world that may be expanded to all incoming freshmen.  Many despair when they learn about limits to growth and finite fossil fuels.  So Rex Weyler came up with a list of “what to do actions” they could take.  It’s one of the best lists I’ve seen.

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


   I. Linear vs. Complex: “What do I do?” generally seeks a linear answer to a complex living system polylemma. “What do I do?” wants a “solution” for a “problem.” This is linear, mechanistic, engineering thinking at its worst, the type of thinking that contributes to our challenge, but we’re stuck with it in popular culture, so yes, we need an answer. This first part of the answer (changing complex systems is NOT going to be a linear and mechanistic “solution”) is probably too confusing for most people, so could be skipped over. However, your students should be aware of this.

  II. There is lots to do, which your students should be taught.

  1. Find ways to help reduce human population

  • with women’s rights
  • start a campaign to achieve universally available contraception

  2. Find ways to help reduce consumption

  •       start a campaign to reduce frivolous travel, entertainment, fashions, etc. purchased by the rich
  •       do this with heavy tax incentives

  3. reduce meat consumption .. tax and popularization

  4. limit corporate power in politics

  5. publicly fund universities, all education, to limit corporate corruption of education

  6. localize food production, home gardens, community gardens

  7. popularize modest lifestyles in wealthy countries

  8. support and preserve modest lifestyles among indigenous and farmer communities

  9. Learn how complex living systems actually work

10. Spend as much time in wild nature as possible, pay attention, observe, take notes, think about it

11. Plant a garden and pay attention to what it takes to help useful, nutritious plants grow

12. Open a clinic and begin to research localized, small-scale health care

13. Educate yourself about wild nature, evolution, and complexity:

  • read Gregory Bateson, Howard Odum, Gail Tverberg ..
  • Read “The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter
  • Read Arne Naess, Chellis Glendinning, David Abram, and Paul Shepard
  • Read “Small Arcs of Larger Circles” by Nora Bateson

14. Think about what it means to stop looking for a Silver Bullet Tech “Solution” — linear, engineered, mechanistic, profitable, BAU, socially popular “solution”  — and start thinking about where and how change actually occurs in a complex living system.

15. Learn about the errors of modern, neo-liberal economics, and learn about other ways to approach economics. Read: N. Georgescu-Roegen, Frederick Soddy, Gail again, Herman Daly, Donella Meadows, Mark Anielski.

16. Start a Campaign to create and institute a new economic system in your community, your state, your county, your nation, your company, your family.

17. Find a spiritual practice that helps you calm down and see the world with more compassion and patience, and that helps you appreciate the more-than-human world.

18. Localize:

  • Start a company that uses local resources and local skills to create useful locally consumed tools
  • Start that local, community health clinic
  • Lobby your government to create community gardens
  • Study and create energy systems that can be built, operated, and maintained locally
  • Campaign to consume only locally produced products.

19. Start an economic De-Growth group, Décroissance

20. Start a school for the homeless and disenfranchised, and teach localized, useful skills, gardening.

21. Take in a homeless foster child; give them some love and security

22. Read Vaclav Smil, Bill Rees, and Charles Hall

24. Start a psychology practice and begin to learn and support community therapy; build community cohesion

25. Read Wendell Berry: “Solving for Pattern” and “Gift of Good Land.”

26. Start a campaign for all shoppers to reduce consumption, and leave ALL PACKAGING at the stores.

27. Start a free store in your community, help recycle, repair, and circulate everything

28. Are you a lawyer, or do you want to be? Start a practice to defend Ecology activists, and start class action lawsuits against corporations that pollute.

29. Read Rachel Carson, Basho, Li Po, William Blake, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Susan Griffin, Nanao Sakaki, Diane di Prima, Walt Whitman. Go to art galleries. Contemplate the connection between creative artistic expression and change in a complex system.

30. See if you can fall in love with something that’s not human. See if you can fall in love with wild nature.

Several people participated in this discussion, a professor added “if they really want to move things along, they must become politically engaged at every level–ask the embarrassing questions at all-candidates meetings, write your representatives, push for policies that will make a difference and protest official idiocy wherever it occurs. And if this fails, civil disobedience will not be far behind.”

These are 30 things your students can DO!

Take your pick. They all count. Teach them. Discuss them. Add to the list. 

There is NO SILVER BULLET TECH SOLUTION that is going to allow us to continue living this endless growth, high consumption, expanding population, fossil-fueled, wasteful, arrogant, human-centered, presumptuous life .. so GET OVER IT. 

Don’t be bullied by the popular hope that there is a magic way to engineer ourselves out of overshoot.

Get creative.

Get local. 

Let go of “changing the world” with human cleverness 

Accept that “the world” is a complex living system, made from complex living subsystems out of your control. 

Find the light inside and share it with the world. 

Avoid whining “What should I do?” by staying active with activities that will matter in the long run.

Posted in What to do | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Fresh water depletion, contamination, saltwater intrusion, & permanent subsidence

Map of the U.S. showing cumulative groundwater depletion from 1900 through 2008 in 40 aquifers. Source: Groundwater Depletion in the United States (1900-2008), USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5079.


What follows is from: Ayre, J. April 2018. Fossil Water Depletion, Groundwater Contamination, Saltwater Intrusion, & Permanent Subsidence — The Great Freshwater Depletion Event Now Underway. CleanTechnica, which you can find here.

Alice Friedemann  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


Much of the modern world’s agricultural productivity, industrial activity, and high degree of urbanization is dependent upon the pumping and exploitation of limited freshwater resources. In some regions the water that is being relied upon is so-called fossil water — that is, water that was deposited many millennia ago and is mostly not being replenished for whatever reasons, such as lack of rainfall or impermeable geologic layers like heavy clay or calcrete laid on top.

As these fossil water reserves are depleted, there is often nothing to replace them (the one notable exception being the possibility of desalination in some regions), with the eventuality often being large populations, industrial infrastructure, and farmland that is untenable in the regions in question, to be followed by mass migrations out of such regions.

Particularly notable regions that are dependent upon fossil water are the American Great Plains (the Ogallala Aquifer), northeastern Africa (the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System), and central-southern Africa (the Kalahari Desert fossil aquifers).

The situation as regards to fossil water depletion in some regions is compounded by extensive development (and paving over) of aquifer-recharge areas in regions where rainfall is otherwise sufficient to replenish aquifers, and further so simply by unsustainable usage rates which draw down reserves.

As groundwater in regions with the possibility of recharge is pumped at unsustainable rates, though, what generally also occurs is ground subsidence. In plain language, the ground sinks due to the lack of support previously provided by groundwater that is no longer there. Subsidence in this context is notable because it leaves the ground and aquifer in question far less capable of storing water, due to compaction. In other words, excess groundwater pumping permanently removes the ability of many aquifers to store water, leaving total aquifer capacity far lower than previously, and thus contributing to the drying out of the region in question.

Going back to the issue of over-paving watersheds that have been developed, another issue that follows from this is the eventuality of large flood events (due to the lack of open ground-space to run down into), and thus further soil erosion which itself leaves the land in question less capable of holding and retaining water/moisture.

All of these above issues are themselves further compounded by saltwater intrusion in coastal regions due to the pumping of groundwater creating a vacuum-effect that draws nearby saltwater into the aquifers, and also due to ground subsidence, general sea level rise, and groundwater contamination in many regions, which is often the direct result of the industrial and agricultural activities that are themselves drawing the most water.

So what we have in the modern world, when we take a step back, is the convergence of growing problems of: fossil water depletion; the destruction of the ability of many aquifers to retain water due to over-pumping as the result of ground subsidence; saltwater intrusion of aquifers caused by over-pumping and sea level rise; widespread groundwater contamination due to industrial and agricultural activities; and ever growing population numbers and food/agricultural needs.

With that in mind, the following is a basic overview of where things stand on different issues.

First, here are a couple of basic facts:

  • More than 4 billion people around the world already experience extreme water scarcity at least 1 month every year.
  • More than 500 million people around the world already experience extreme water scarcity essentially year-round. This number is expected to increase significantly over the coming decades.
  • Well over half of the largest cities around the world now experience water scarcity occasionally.
  • Fresh-water demand is estimated to exceed demand by at least ~40% by 2030.
  • Deforestation and accompanying aridification and/or desertification are primary drivers of water scarcity in some regions due to decreasing atmospheric moisture and thus rainfall levels. This is largely driven by consumer demand for cheap meat and livestock-feed on the one hand, and by demand for timber products on the other. Other water-intensive crops play a part as well though, like cotton and various types of oil/tree-nut/fruit crops for instance.
  • With “higher” standards of living, water use increases exponentially as people switch from a low-resource lifestyle to one of profligate use and waste. People in the wealthier countries of the world are known to use 10-50 times more fresh-water on an annual basis than those in the poorest.
  • Over just the last century, more than half of the world’s wetlands and watersheds have been destroyed and no longer exist in any capacity. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in the loss of a very large amount of biodiversity, and also of numerous fisheries. In the US and Europe the loss of historic wetlands over the last century is in the 80-95% range.
  • A large majority of the groundwater now being pumped up from aquifers is being used by agriculture and industry.
  • Many of the largest rivers of Asia could effectively be gone by as soon as the end of the century due to the current rapid melting of associated glaciers.

Overpumping, Ground Subsidence, & Saltwater Intrusion

The overpumping of freshwater from aquifers, as noted previously, is a direct cause of ground subsidence and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas. What wasn’t stated previously is that as aquifer levels are drawn down, the quality of the water being pumped is generally being lowered, with rising levels of salinity (via ground salts), and also rising levels of grit and contaminants also being observed.

Something else to note on that count is that as aquifers are diminished, the natural outflows of the region — springs, etc. — experience much reduced outflows, or simply cease to exist.

In relation to this, the aforementioned experience of ground subsidence results in sinking land, which increases the danger of flood events in addition to reducing the capacity of the aquifer in question to hold water. It’s notable, for instance, that in some of the land surrounding Houston, Texas, ground levels have dropped by as much as 9 feet in recent decades due to extensive groundwater pumping.

Despite all of this, resistance to a reduction in pumping rates is often high, with those involved in agriculture in particular often fighting hard to stop the imposition of such an approach.

Accompanying ground subsidence in coastal regions is often saltwater intrusion into the aquifers being pumped — thereby diminishing the quality of the water, and often demanding costly treatment processes to allow continued potability.

Generally speaking, freshwater pumping in coastal regions allows saltwater to flow further inland than is otherwise the case, as do agricultural drainage systems. Sea level rise itself does as well, of course, as do the storm surges that accompanying powerful storms. This is all especially true in coastal regions where the aquifers are highly porous — in parts of New Jersey and Florida, for instance.

Groundwater Contamination & Pollution

In addition to problems of sheer freshwater unavailability are the fast increasing problems of freshwater contamination. Groundwater contamination has become an increasingly common problem in recent decades as industrial and agricultural productivity levels have been brought to unsustainable levels.

While contamination that ultimately is the result of industrial and agricultural activities is the most common type, increasing urbanization is another, as population-dense regions are often unable to deal effectively with the waste products that result without expensive systems (which some regions can’t afford). Ineffective wastewater treatment facilities, landfills, and fueling stations, for instance, are often sources of groundwater contamination in urban regions. Some regions, it should be noted, feature groundwater with high levels of arsenic or fluoride regardless of human activity, and aquifer reliance in those regions is thus dangerous.

An example of a dangerous but common type of groundwater contaminant deriving from human activities is nitrates, which is generally the result of agricultural activities. Other, more dangerous, compounds are also common groundwater pollutants, including various types of solvents, PAHs, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides, herbicides, other artificial fertilizers, radioactive compounds, pharmaceuticals and their metabolites, and various types of persistent chemical pollution.

Before closing this section, I suppose that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as a means of extracting fossil oil and gas reserves deserves a mention. While the practice itself does not inherently need to be a cause of groundwater contamination, in practice it often is due to the reality that it is often pursued carelessly and that e companies involved have a tendency to dissolve when problems arise (with those involved simply starting a new firm afterwords).

Loss Of Glaciers, Climate Change, Rising Temperatures, & Increasing Atmospheric Moisture

Accompanying the depletion and contamination of groundwater freshwater resources, the world’s above-ground freshwater resources — largely glaciers, winter snowpack, and high-altitude lakes — are rapidly disappearing as well in many parts of the world.

While the rapid melting of many glaciers in recent years has led to an increase in water availability in some regions — in particular in the parts of the world that ultimately source their freshwater from glaciers in South and Central Asia (via rivers originating there) — all that this means is that long-term supply is being compromised even faster than would otherwise be the case. As these glaciers disappear, there will be increased water scarcity affecting literally hundreds of millions to billions more people than is currently the case.

Also worth noting here, is that rising temperatures are themselves affecting freshwater supplies by increasing the rate of evaporation in many regions and thereby limiting the amount of surface water and the ability of aquifers to recharge. Accompanying this is the reality that as atmospheric moisture levels rise as a result, temperatures will continue rising even faster due to the reality that water vapor is itself a potent greenhouse gas.

Posted in Groundwater, Salinity, Water, Water, Water | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Black starting the grid after a power outage

Toronto during the Northeast blackout of 2003, which required black-starting of generating stations. Source:

Black starts

Large blackouts can be quite devastating and it isn’t easy to restart the electric grid again.

This is typically done by designated black start units of natural gas, coal, hydro, or nuclear power plants that can restart themselves using their own power with no help from the rest of the electrical grid.  Not all power plants can restart themselves.

In regions lucky enough to have hydropower (just 10 states have 80% of the hydropower in the U.S.) this is usually the designated black start source since a hydroelectric station needs very little initial power to start, and can put a large block of power on line very quickly to allow start-up of fossil-fuel or nuclear stations.

Wind turbines are not suitable for black start because wind may not be available when needed (Fox 2007) and likewise solar power plants suffer from the same problem.

The impact of a blackout exponentially increases with the duration of the blackout, and the duration of restoration decreases exponentially with the availability of initial sources of power. For several time-critical loads, quick restoration (minutes rather than hours or even days) is crucial. Blackstart generators, which can be started without any connection to the grid, are a key element in restoring service after a widespread outage. These initial sources of power include pump-storage hydropower, which can take 5-10 minutes to start, to certain types of combustion turbines, which take on the order of hours.

For a limited outage, restoration can be rapid, which will then allow sufficient time for repair to bring the system to full operability, although there may be a challenge for subsurface cables in metropolitan areas. On the other hand, in widespread outages, restoration itself may be a significant barrier, as was the case in the 1965 and 2003 Northeast blackouts. Natural disasters, however, can also lead to significant issues of repair—after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, full repair of the electric power system took several years (NAS)

Restoring a system from a blackout required a very careful choreography of re-energizing transmission lines from generators that were still online inside the blacked-out area, from systems from outside the blacked-out area, restoring station power to off-line generating units so they could be restarted, synchronizing the generators to the interconnection, and then constantly balancing generation and demand as additional generating units and additional customer demands are restored to service.

Many may not realize it takes days to bring nuclear and coal fired power plants back on-line, so restoring power was done with gas-fired plants normally used for peak periods to cover baseload needs normally coal and nuclear-powered. The diversity of our energy systems proved invaluable (CR).

Restarting the grid after the 2003 power outage was especially difficult.

The blackout shutdown over 100 power plants, including 22 nuclear reactors, cutoff power for 50 million people in 8 states and Canada, including much of the Northeast corridor and the core of the American financial network, and showed just how vulnerable our tightly knit network of generators, transmission lines, and other critical infrastructure is.

The dependence of major infrastructural systems on the continued supply of electrical energy, and of oil and gas, is well recognized. Telecommunications, information technology, and the Internet, as well as food and water supplies, homes and worksites, are dependent on electricity; numerous commercial and transportation facilities are also dependent on natural gas and refined oil products.


CR. September 4 & 23, 2003. Implications of power blackouts for the nation’s cybersecurity and critical infrastructure protection. Congressional Record, House of Representatives. Serial No. 108–23. Christopher Cox, California, Chairman select committee on homeland security

Fox, Brendan et al; Wind Power Integration – Connection and System Operational Aspects, Institution of Engineering and Technology, 2007 page 245

NAS. 2012. Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. National Academy of Science

NAS. 2013. The Resilience of the Electric Power Delivery System in Response to Terrorism and Natural Disasters. National Academy of Science


Posted in Grid instability | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Escape to Mars after we’ve trashed the Earth?

find-another-planet-climate-changeThe idea that we can go to Mars is touted by NASA, Elon Musk, and so many others that this dream seems just around the corner.  If we destroy our planet with climate change, pollution, and so on, no problem, we can go to Mars.

But as Ugo Bardi points out in his book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet we already have gone to another planet by exploiting Earth so ruthlessly that we have changed our planet into another world.

“The planet has been “plundered to the utmost limit, and what we will be left with are only the ashes of a gigantic fire. We are leaving to our descendants a heavy legacy in terms of radioactive waste, heavy metals dispersed all over the planet, and greenhouse gases—mainly CO2—accumulated in the atmosphere and absorbed in the oceans. It appears that we found a way to travel to another planet without the need for building spaceships.  It is not obvious that we’ll like the place, but there is no way back; we’ll have to adapt to the new conditions. It will not be easy, and we can speculate that it will lead to the collapse of the structure we call civilization, or even the extinction of the human species”.

Go to Mars?  Really?  Been there, done that on Earth, and it didn’t work out: Biosphere 2

Remember the $250 million 3.14 acre sealed Biosphere 2 complex near Tucson, Arizona?  It was built to show how colonists could survive on Mars and other space colonization but they only made it for 2 years ON EARTH.

Eight people sealed themselves inside in 1991, planning to live on the food they grew, recycled water, and the oxygen made by plants.

Some of the reasons the Biosphere failed are:

  • Oxygen fell from 20.9% to 14.5%, the equivalent of 13,400 feet elevation and after 18 months oxygen was pumped in
  • Carbon dioxide levels fluctuated wildly
  • Pests ran riot, especially crazy ants, cockroaches, and katydids.  Most of the other insect species went extinct.
  • Not enough food could be grown
  • It cost $600,000 a year to keep it cool
  • Extinction: The projected started out with 25 small vertebrates but only 6 species survived (including those expected to pollinate plants)
  • Water systems were polluted with too many nutrients
  • Morning glories smothered other plants
  • The level of dinitrogen oxide became dangerously high, which can cause brain damage due to a lowered ability to synthesize vitamin B12

Astronauts will suffer damage from Cosmic Radiation

The idea that if we trash our planet, which looks pretty inevitable, we can go to Mars is a common meme today, touted by Elon Musk, Presidents Obama and Trump, Richard Branson, Stephen Hawking, NASA and others keep hope alive that we can do this.

But we can’t – cosmic radiation in space is simply to harmful to the human body.  We can’t really bombard humans with the densely ionizing radiation found in space,  but mice who’ve been through this get dementia, suffer significant long-term brain damage, have cognitive impairments, lose memory and learning ability, critical decision making and problem solving skills, neuronal damage, and other cognitive defects (Parihar 2015, 2016).

Other studies have shown studies have shown the health risks from galactic cosmic ray exposure to astronauts include cancer, central nervous system effects, cataracts, circulatory diseases and acute radiation syndromes.

A recent study has shown that the risk of cancer is actually twice as high as what previous models had estimated for a Mars mission.

Oh, and this just in. It is likely deep space bombardment by galactic cosmic radiatoin could not only damage gastrointestinal tissue, but increase the risk of tumors in the stomach and colon (Kumar 2018).

And going to space deforms brain tissue, perhaps permanently (Daley 2018).

The toxins in the soil will kill humans, plants, and bacteria

If there’s any life on Mars, it’s deep down because there are three toxins in the soil inimical to life — perchlorates, iron oxides, and hydrogen peroxide. The high levels of perchlorate found on Mars would be toxic to humans and almost certainly breathed in as very fine dust particles entered space suits or habitats.  Plants would be poisoned too, and even if a way were found to get these toxins out of the soil it wouldn’t matter, there are no nutrients in the soil.


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of problems with going to Mars which Mary Roach’s delightful and hilarious book explains in “Packing for Mars“.

Rocket propulsion depends on fossil fuels, yet here we are at the cusp of the end of the oil age.  In a hundred years, they’ll be gone and we won’t be able to get to Mars or the Moon.

If only people appreciated how marvelous our planet is, and what a shame it would be if we destroyed our species, we may be the only intelligent, conscious life in the universe  (see Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe).

Poetry says it best: “This Splendid Speck” by Paul Boswell

There are no peacocks on Venus,
No oak trees or water lilies on Jupiter,
No squirrels or whales or figs on Mercury,
No anchovies on the moon;
And inside the rings of Saturn
There is no species that makes poems
and Intercontinental missiles.

Eight wasted planets,
Several dozen wasted moons.
In all the Sun’s half-lighted entourage
One unbelievable blue and white exception,

This breeding, feeding, bleeding,
Cloud-peekaboo Earth,
Is not dead as a diamond.

This splendid speck,
This DNA experiment station,
Where life seems, somehow,
To have designed or assembled itself;
Where Chance and Choice
Play at survival and extinction;
Where molecules beget molecules,
And mistakes in the begetting
May be inconsequential,
Or lethal or lucky;

Where life everywhere eats live
And reproduction usually outpaces cannibalism;
This bloody paradise
Where, under the Northern lights,
Sitting choirs of white wolves
Howl across the firmament
Their chill Te Deums.

Where, in lower latitudes, matter more articulate
Gets a chance at consciousness
And invents The Messiah, or The Marseillaise,
The Ride of the Valkyries, or The Rhapsody in Blue.

This great blue pilgrim gyroscope,
Warmer than Mars, cooler than Venus,
Old turner of temperate nights and days,
This best of all reachable worlds,
This splendid speck.

For more information see the 2013 NewScientist article “Biosphere 2: saving the world within the world” and Wiki.


Cucinotta, F., A., et al. 2017. Non-Targeted Effects Models Predict Significantly Higher Mars Mission Cancer Risk than Targeted Effects Models. Scientific Reports.

Daley, J. October 26, 2018. Hanging Out in Space Deforms Brain Tissue, New Cosmonaut Study Suggests. While gray matter shrinks, cerebrospinal fluid increases. What’s more: These changes do not completely resolve once back on Earth.

Kumar, S. et al., 2018. Space radiation triggers persistent stress response, increases senescent signaling, and decreases cell migration in mouse intestine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Parihar, V. K. 2015. What happens to your brain on the way to Mars. Science advances.

Parihar, V. K., et al. 2016. Cosmic radiation exposure and persistent cognitive dysfunction. Scientific Reports.

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

Posted in Climate Change, Extinction, Far Out, Human Nature, Planetary Boundaries, Where to Be or Not to Be | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

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  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.  


Brandt A.R., et al. 2013. The energy efficiency of oil sands extraction: Energy return ratios from 1970 to 2010. Energy.

CAPP. 2015. Canadian crude oil production forecast 2014–2030. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

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.

Murphy, D.J., C. Hall, M. Dale, and C. Cleveland. 2011. Order from chaos: a preliminary protocol for determining the EROI of fuels. Sustainability 3(10):1888–1907.

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Soderbergh, B., et al. 2007. A crash programme scenario for the Canadian oil sands industry. Energy Policy 35.

Weissbach, D., G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, and A. Hussein. 2013. Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants. Energy 52:1, 210–221.










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Toxic textiles: the lethal history of Rayon

Preface. This is a book review from Science magazine of Paul David Blanc’s 2016 book “Fake Silk The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon”, Yale University Press.  I’ve shortened the review and changed some of the text.

This book exposes how rayon, aka viscose, and especially the compound within it — carbon disulfide is very toxic, and has destroyed the bodies and minds of factory workers for over a century.

Blanc makes the case that the harm done by rayon deserves to be as well known as asbestos insulation, leaded paint, and mercury-tainted seafood in Minimata Bay.

It made me wonder how many other man-made materials harm the lives of those who make them, but are yet to be undiscovered, or already are known to be harmful but remain unregulated due to the powerful chemical industry lobby, i.e. flame retardants, which despite decades of scientific research showing them to be harmful, are still not regulated, despite 40 bills introduced into state legislatures — only two were passed (West, J. 2018. Update on the regulatory status of flame retardants).

Alice Friedemann  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 ]

Monosson, E. 2016. Toxic Textiles. A physician uncovers the disturbing history of an “ecofriendly” fiber. Science 354: 977

In this slim, action-packed book, Paul David Blanc takes the reader on a historical tour that touches on chemistry, occupational health, and the maneuverings of multinational corporations.

Who knew that the fabric that has had its turn on the high-fashion runway, as a pop-culture joke (remember leisure suits?), and more recently as a “green” textile had such a dark side?

Rayon is a cellulose-based textile in which fibers from tree trunks and plant stalks are spun together into a soft and absorbent fabric. First patented in England in 1892, viscose-rayon production was firmly established by the American Viscose Company in the United States in 1911. Ten years later, the factory was buzzing with thousands of workers. “[E]very man, woman, and child who had to be clothed” were once considered potential consumers by ambitious manufacturers.

However, once the silken fibers are formed, carbon disulfide—a highly volatile chemical—is released, filling factory workrooms with fumes that can drive workers insane. Combining accounts from factory records, occupational physicians’ reports, journal articles, and interviews with retired workers, Blanc reveals the misery behind the making of this material: depression, weeks in the insane asylum, and, in some cases, suicide. Those who were not stricken with neurological symptoms might still succumb to blindness, impotency, and malfunctions of the vascular system and other organs. For each reported case, I could not help but wonder how many others retreated quietly into their disabilities or graves.

Yet, “[a]s their nerves and vessels weakened, the industry they worked in became stronger,” writes Blanc. In Fake Silk, he exposes an industry that played hardball: implementing duopolies and price-fixing and influencing federal health standards. Viscose manufacturers, he writes, served as a “prototype of a multinational business enterprise, an early model of what would become the dominant modus operandi for large business entities after World War II.

The business of transforming plants into products is once again on the rise as consumers increasingly shun petroleum-based synthetic materials. China now accounts for 60% of rayon production, with India, Thailand, and several other countries accounting for the rest. (According to Blanc, U.S. production of viscose rayon has “gone offline.”) Yet, despite modernization of the manufacturing process—including improved ventilation—worker safety, writes Blanc, is not a given. The few available reports on contemporary production suggest that recommended exposure limits are often exceeded.

The fabric’s recent rebirth as an ecofriendly product [marketed by one manufacturer with the tagline “Nature returns to Nature” (1)], notes Blanc, is a “real tour de force of corporate chutzpah.

Years ago, I taught a class focused on toxic textiles. Had Blanc’s book Fake Silk been available at the time, it certainly would have been on the reading list.

“I am motivated by a desire to memorialize the terrible suffering that has occurred,” writes Blanc. With Fake Silk, he has surely succeeded.

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Invasive insects

Preface.  Below is a by no means exhaustive list of insect scourges, just the ones I happen to run across in the magazines I subscribe to or online.  To some extent these invasions are being suppressed by massive amounts of toxic chemicals that have their own dire consequences, but in the end, pesticides won’t be around after we head downhill on the rollercoaster of depleting energy and natural resources.  As it is, they only last for 5 years, and like antibiotics, we are running out of toxic chemicals to even attempt to use.  Whoever is still around after collapse will sure be hard pressed to survive — unless they add insects to their diets…


Chemical industrial farming is unsustainable. Why poison ourselves when pesticides don’t save more of our crops than in the past?

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

May 2017. New crop pest takes Africa at lightning speed. Science 356:473-474.

In Rwanda, the drab caterpillars were first spotted last February. By April, they were turning up across the country, attacking a quarter of all maize fields. As farmers panicked, soldiers delivered pesticides by helicopter and helped pick off caterpillars by hand.

Unknown in Africa until last year, the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) is now marching across the continent with an astonishing speed. At least 21 countries have reported the pest in the past 16 months. The fall armyworm can devastate maize, a staple, and could well attack almost every major African crop.

Armyworms get their name because when the caterpillars have defoliated a field, they march by the millions to find more food. The adult moths can travel hundreds of kilometers per night on high-altitude winds. The endemic African armyworm (S. exempta) already causes major crop losses every few years. But the fall armyworm, a native of the Americas, causes more damage because females lay their eggs directly on maize plants rather than on wild grasses, and the caterpillars have stronger, sharper jaws.

In many other countries, damage reports are still preliminary. “We don’t yet know if this is going to cause a food security crisis,” Wilson says. In the Americas, the armyworm feeds on more than 80 plants, seriously damaging maize, sorghum, and pasture grass and has has evolved resistance both to several pesticides and to some kinds of transgenic maize.

the pest appears likely to spread beyond Africa. The moths will probably arrive in Yemen within a few months, Wilson says. Migration or trade also could bring the pest to Europe, he adds, making it important to inspect imported plant material and conduct field surveys with pheromone traps. If the species reaches Asia, says entomologist Ramasamy Srinivasan of the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, “its introduction might have a huge economic impact.”

March 1, 2016.  Buzzkill: Deadly hornets set to invade UK, chop up bees, experts warn.

A dangerous group of insect invaders accused of killing six people in France are now heading to the UK, wildlife experts have cautioned.  Asian hornets could devastate England’s dwindling bee population, as they are known to kill up to 50 honey bees per day, mainly by chopping them up and feeding them to their larvae. “It is feared that it is just a matter of time before it reaches our shores,” according to Camilla Keane of the Wildlife and Countryside group.  She said in a statement that hornets will be incredibly difficult and costly to tackle once they arrive, causing “significant environmental and economic damage”.  The aggressive predator first arrived in France 12 years ago via pottery and quickly spread to Portugal, Italy, and Belgium.  It is expected to soon reach northern France where it could easily spread across a channel. From April onwards, the hornets produce eggs and don’t stop until the hive population peaks at around 6,000 insects. Bees are estimated to contribute £651m ($908m) a year to the UK economy as honey-producing slaves.

María Virginia Parachú Marcó. 2015. Red Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) Effects on Broad-Snouted Caiman Nest Success. Journal of Herpetology 49(1):70-74.

Argentinian fire ants are held in check by native predators.  But in the USA where no natural predators exist, they could kill 70% of turtle hatchlings in Florida, and they’ve been caught eating snakes, lizards, birds, and even deer fawns who freeze when in danger, giving the ants the chance to attack.

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Book: John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”

Preface.  This contains excerpts from John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization”. It’s one of my favorite books about natural resources, exploring the role wood has played in the rise and fall of civilizations since they began.

One of the many reasons cutting forests down crashes nations is that the land is no longer protected from wind or rain and the topsoil blows or washes away, and food production declines precipitously.  Also harbors silt up and are rendered useless.

Wood was the foundation of infrastructure as well as energy for all previous civilizations before fossils came along, and wood is still the largest renewable energy source in Europe and used extensively in America as well to heat and cook with, and generate electricity. about 90 million people in Europe and North America now use wood energy as the main source of domestic heating.

In fact, wood is the main source of energy for the bottom 2 billion poor of the world. Africa uses over 90% of their wood for energy and overall is 27% of their primary energy. In Latin America wood is 13% of their total energy supply, and it is 5% in Asia and Oceana.

In developing countries, wood-based fuels are the dominant source of energy for more than two billion mostly poor people. In Africa, over 90 percent of harvested wood is used for energy. Wood accounts for 27% of total primary energy supply in Africa, 13% in Latin America and the Caribbean and 5% in Asia and Oceania. However, it is also increasingly used in developed countries with the aim of reducing dependence on fossil fuels (FAO. 2015. Status of the World’s Soil Resources. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

As fossils deplete, wood will again take its place as the main source of energy and material to build with.

As usual, since I’m not paid to write my blog, and because I’m often interested in only certain aspects of wood, these kindle notes have left out some of the most fascinating material from early civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, the Roman empire, Venetia and so on.

The constant and resounding theme is that there is such a thing as Peak Wood and that this has felled civilizations over and over again.  America was headed that way faster than Europe or any other nation because so many forests were being cut down to feed steamboats, locomotives, factories, and other steam engines, as well as heating and cooking for seven months of the year, and to construct buildings, wagons, and every other use wood has.

But then along came coal and oil, and collapse from decimated forests was delayed for a century or so.  Let’s hope forest fires don’t decimate our remaining trees, we’re going to need them!

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

Perlin, John. 2005. A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization. Countryman Press.

Shortages of wood led to coal becoming king

Shortages of wood spurred most industries throughout Britain to convert from wood to coal. Some cities, like London, began burning coal earlier than others.  Worcestershire managed to use wood as fuel in their salt-works until the late 1670s. By at that point industry had so destroyed the trees in the vicinity that at best enough wood for just a few months could be found.  Hence a switch to coal was made.  Likewise the town of Staffordshire found their woods spent and began to rely on coal for industry, offices, and homes. By the end of the 17th century, glass-houses, salt-works, brick making and malting burned only coal.

The ruling class could see wood shortages approaching and did all they could to protect forests to make them last longer.  But the economic incentives to cut timber illegally were just too great. Fuel cutters and tanners often teamed up. Tanners wanted as much bark per acre as could be obtained for their tanneries while the fuel cutter was paid by the amount of wood cut. In the event they were caught by the manager of the estate, they simply bribed him.

Wood permeated and made possible every aspect of society.  Since water transport was far less expensive than going overland, many miles of canals were built.  But that required wood for the scaffolding, wooden retaining walls on each side of the canal trench to prevent earth from collapsing once water entered, using thousands of pilings of oak.  Where locks were placed, timber was used for their gates.  Canal building used immense amounts of wood.

Wood had many uses in agriculture, including the poles that supported hop vines and the charcoal used to dry the hops.  Cider producers used a great deal of wood to build their barrels.  Aging cheese required very large structures of oak.

Even when water was the main source of power, the waterwheels themselves were made of wood, the shaft of the wheel, the cogs, and spinning machinery.  The mills to make cotton, flour, and other industries required a tremendous amount of wood.

When coal finally became the favored fuel, it too needed a lot of wood. Indeed, the transition from wood to coal couldn’t have taken place without wood to make supports for coal mine shafts, many miles of wooden rails to take the coal in wooden wagons to a port or city.  The coal was so heavy that the wooden rails required constant replacement. And finally the coal was usually brought to markets on wooden boats.

Only when iron could be produced with coal rather than charcoal from wood was dependence on wood dramatically lessened.   Iron rails replaced wood rails, as well as wood bridges, beams, machinery, and ships.

The rise of iron and coal caused timber to lose its status as civilization’s primary building material and fuel and become comparatively worthless lumber.

Madeira and the rise of Portugal


Madeira was so thickly wooded when the Portuguese first set foot there that they named it “isola de Madeira,” or “island of timber, for there was not a foot of ground that was not entirely covered with great trees.  But these forests were doomed when the Portuguese decided that the best use of this land was sugarcane, which requires wood all the way.  Sugar mills are made of wood, as was the mill’s machinery, waterwheels, and the rollers that crushed sugar cane stalks, where it was concentrated by kettles heated around the clock with a wood fire.  By 1494, the island’s sugar industry needed about 60,000 tons of wood just to boil the cane. Four of the 16 mills required 80,000 pack animal loads per year.   In addition, vast amounts of timber were shipped to Portugal for their new navy and merchant fleet. Having an ocean-going fleet enabled Portugal to go to India, and break the Venetian monopoly on Asian commerce, tipping the balance of wealth.  But just 240 years later, a sailor wrote that Madeira was “so miserably burnt by the sun … we could perceive no part of it … that had the appearance of green nor any tree bigger than a small hawthorn, and very few of these.”  By 1851 the rivers had almost dried up.


Other European nations joined in the ship-building frenzy and realized that the Caribbean offered the same ideal conditions for growing and processing sugar as existed on Madeira. The Portuguese soon established sugar plantations in Brazil.  To get the wood to build and fuel these sugar mills, each mill needed to have about eight slaves to cut and carry wood to the mill, and each mill needed about 90 acres of forests per year.  Within 20 years, all of the forests on Barbados were gone.


Alexander von Humboldt, explained why deforested lands in the tropics experienced torrid heat and catastrophic desiccation. Trees “affect the copiousness of springs … because by sheltering the soil from the direct action of the sun, they diminish the evaporation of water produced by rain. When the forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America with imprudent precipitancy, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall, because cutting wood also destroys the grass cover and moss, so rain is no longer impeded, forming sudden and destructive inundations.”


Planters discovered additional changes in the land on account of deforestation. The soil rapidly lost its fertility after its original cover was cleared. After fewer than 30 years of cultivation, the governor of Barbados complained that the land produced by two-thirds of what it once did, and the soil loss was exacerbated by the heavy rains of violent tropical storms “to run away”.  Entire hillsides planted in sugarcane often slid into the valleys below.


The Europeans rid the Indies of their native populations with the same violence that they employed to clear the forests of their trees. The Spanish chronicler Juan Acosta informed the world that by 1588 “there have remained few natural Indians.   With the Indians gone, the planters lacked hands to work their sugar mills, making it “more requisite to send over Blacks”.


The sugar mills would have gone out of business if settlers hadn’t colonized New England, chock full of timber that was sent to the tropics in exchange for sugar and rum. For example, between 1771 and 1773, 240,000 trees were cut in exchange for 3 million gallons of rum.


New England exported wood to many forest-less nations such as Madeira, and eventually Portugal and Spain. A huge ship building industry sprang up as well due to the plentiful wood. One dockyard alone built over 500 ships between 1697 and 1731.  And in turn this huge merchant fleet, which cost far less than deforested European nations, enabled New England to win a greater and greater share of world trade.  In addition, fishing and whaling boats were built.


Enormous amounts of wood raised the settlers’ standard of living considerably, with plenty of wood to build homes and burn for warmth.  Families generally sat close to the fireplace for seven months of the year. The size of the fireplace around was often so large it required logs dragged inside by a horse or oxen.


After building their log cabin, many families built a sawmill along the nearest stream to sell planks and staves in the international market. Each mill destroyed about 14 trees per day. There were so many mills that even in 1719 it was predicted that it wouldn’t take long for settler’s to destroy all the woods in the province.


By the late 17th century, Massachusetts had cut down so much of their lumber that they had no choice

but to obtain fuel from Maine. A whole fleet of sloops worked the Maine-Boston run all year so people living in Boston could cook and heat their houses, and the city’s industries, including its many rum distilleries, could stay in production.


Great Britain needed desperately needed tall masts to retain their mastery of global trade and marine warfare.  Yet it could not furnish itself with masts by the 17th century.  And so Great Britain had to rely on the Baltic states such as Denmark, Poland, and Russia for its mast supply via the Baltic sea.  In 1658 the Dutch had plans to bring the British to their knees by keeping them out of the Baltic Sea by taking control of the narrow sound between Denmark to the south and Norway and Sweden on the north.  Oliver Cromwell, in a speech before Parliament, asked a joint session rhetorically, “If they can shut us out of the Baltic Sea and make themselves masters of that … where are the materials to preserve … shipping? And so 60 ships were sent to keep the Baltic safe for English navigation and it stayed open.


But as early as 1634 New England was already providing some masts and by 1700 provided most of them.  The trees most in demand were Eastern White pines that grew from 150 to 240 feet tall and required 72 oxen to pull to the nearest river for transport.  Trees too distant from rivers cost six times as much to haul out, and consequently were left untouched. Their lumber was light but strong and easy for a carpenter to shape and finish, with the added bonus of being resistant to rot, and desired for homes, bridges, and other structures in addition to shipping.


The Dutch and French were Great Britain’s rivals, and both nations tried to stop the New England Mast trade.  The Dutch captured at least two ships sailing from America’s shores, and the French military tried to sabotage mast trees by giving them three or four chops of a hatchet.  France also paid native Americans for each English scalp brought in, driving the British out of most of Maine and much of New Hampshire in the late 1600s.  Native warriors succeeded in shutting down much of the commerce in masts by destroying all the oxen used to draw masts out of the woods and creating so much fear in most English settlers that they didn’t dare venture into the woods. Eventually England could depend on the Piscataqua River, in all of New England, to deliver masts.


These tall trees were so critical to the British Empire that British surveyor’s went across large tracts of land and emblazoned them with a mark that came to be known as King’s Broad Arrow to be harvested and used solely for ships of the Royal British Navy.


The colonists had their own uses for mast trees and resented Britain’s reserving the best trees for themselves.  This was a hard law to enforce.  Some historians believe that the British laws denying them to use forests they saw as theirs instrumental as the taxation of tea in bringing about the American Revolution.  In the end, these emblazoned marks only helped colonists to quickly find and harvest the best trees in a forest with little chance of being caught.


Many decades before the Revolution, Dr. Cooke, who gave up his medical practice to run his many sawmills, challenged the king’s right to the woods. He insisted that he and his countrymen had the right to dispose of timber resources as they saw fit. In the province of Maine, the king had no right to any trees, not even to those 24 inches or greater in diameter which the revised charter had reserved for the Crown. It had never held that right, he argued, since Maine belonged to a private individual, was purchased by Massachusetts and became its private property before the new charter came into force. As the charter exempted trees growing on property held privately prior to its enactment from the Crown’s jurisdiction, Cooke concluded, Massachusetts, not England, owned all the trees in Maine and could do whatever it pleased with them.  Others argued that they owned the trees through titles bought from Indian chiefs who originally were the original owners.


Meanwhile the iron industry in Great Britain needed a great deal of lumber, and purchasing it was draining England’s hard currency and was a threat to its balance of payments.  England needed more than wood – pitch and tar were essential to waterproofing the Navy, and Sweden put the squeeze on them in 1703 as England was about to battle France.  The Swedes not only raised their prices considerably, they also reduced the amount they’d sell to England, and increased their exports to France.


And so this trade also fell to the American colonists, who began producing very large quantities and a high price, but Great Britain was willing to pay them rather than be dependent on Sweden.  Tar is made by splitting pine into three-foot pieces and placing them around a hole in the center of a kiln, and the heat of a fire burning above the pine wood forced the tar out, where it trickled through the hole to where workers could scoop it up and pour into barrels


Until coke from coal (starting in 1709) rather than charcoal from wood was used to make iron, forests continued to disappear.   With so much wood, it wasn’t long before investors in America built furnaces and forges to make iron, since wood cost 14 times less per cord of wood than in England.  This gave American iron a huge competitive edge.   That led to local manufacturers making goods such as skillets, pots, ladles, chimney backs, scythes, sickles, spades, shovels, hoes, and plows far more cheaply than these products could be purchased from English or Dutch manufacturers.


The rapid growth of the colonial iron industry rounded out America’s potential to become a major power in the world. As much iron was produced in the colonies in 1776 as in the British Isles. Even more important, a certain type of American iron, called “Best Principio,” was judged, “as good as any in the world for making firearms.” In testimony before the House of Lords, Richard Penn, the proprietor of Pennsylvania, informed the lords and all of England of America’s ability to make her own arms. The House was told that the colonists “had means of casting iron cannon in great plenty … and had … made great quantities of small arms of very good quality.


So important had the colonies become to the well-being of England that Benjamin Franklin allegedly suggested that as an alternative to breaking up the English-speaking world, “America should become the general seat of Empire, and that Great Britain and Ireland should be governed by Viceroys sent over from Court Residences either at Philadelphia, or New York, or some other American Imperial City.


“The most striking feature” of the new American nation was “an almost universal forest,” starting at the coast, “thickening and enlarging … to the heart of the country.” C. Volney, a French naturalist visiting America right after its independence, came to this conclusion after journeying “from the mouth of the Delaware [River], through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky to the Wabash river [which today forms the southern portion of the Illinois and Indiana border], northward to Detroit, through Lake Erie to Niagara and Albany.


One of the first native American geographers, Jedidiah Morse, informed his readers of the “stately oaks, hickories and chestnuts which grew in the hilly and mountainous parts of” New Jersey. Upstate New York, according to Morse, was “clothed thick with timber.” Alex de Tocqueville found Morse’s assessment quite accurate, describing the state as one vast forest.


As impressive as the eastern forest was to travelers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, once they passed from states bordering the Atlantic, crossed over the Appalachian Mountains, and descended into the Ohio valley, they were “agreeably surprised on finding nature in a novel and more splendid garb.” Nature had formed the trees “on a grander scale” than anywhere else, according to Edmund Dana, author of an early guidebook for people wishing to settle in the Ohio region. Another person who viewed the forests west of the Appalachians compared the trees to “a grand assemblage of gigantic beings which carry the imagination back to others times before the foot of the white man had touched the American shore.” Dana wrote that “the forest trees west of the Appalachians grow to an uncommon height.


Indiana, at the beginning of the 19th century, was “one vast forest” of sycamore, oak, maple, beech, dogwood, birch, walnut, and hickory. These same trees made southern Michigan, during the early 1800s, one of the most heavily forested areas in the Union and gave Illinois plenty of timber and Wisconsin all kinds of wood of the best quality. None, however, could compare with Ohio’s woodlands, which presented “the grandest unbroken forest of 41,000 square miles that was ever beheld on this continent. Immense forests of pine dominated the northern portions of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.


After the American Revolution, England faced a crisis of being able to get enough wood.  This was when the idea that ships ought to be made out of iron instead, since England had plenty of coal, as did other trades as well, waterwheels began to be made of iron rather than wood, as did bridges and much more.


The first building to go up in the wilderness was usually a sawmill. Lumberjacks either sold their logs to the mill owner or had them sawed into boards or planks, giving the mill owner some logs in exchange for the service. The owner of the mill accumulated wealth through his business and, according to Kendall, with his money “builds a large wooden house,” opens a store, and “erects a still and barters rum” and other goods for more logs.


The woodsmen eventually clear a good portion of the surrounding countryside. Farmers settle on the deforested land and they soon need a gristmill, Kendall observed, which goes up near the sawmill. Sheep are also raised on the farms, requiring a mill to prepare woolen fibers for spinning. More farmers move to the vicinity to take advantage of living near such mills. And to serve the needs of this burgeoning rural community, “a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a tailor, and various other artisans and artificers successively assemble” and the congregation of people now forms a parish.


Manufacturing villages such as the one described by Kendall were scattered over a vast extent of the country, from Indiana to the Atlantic, and from Maine to Georgia.


In the state of New York alone in 1835 there were over 2,000 gristmills, almost 7,000 sawmills, 71 oil mills, 965 mills engaged in preparing woolen fabric, 293 iron mills, 141 sheet iron mills, 69 clover mills, 70 paper mills, and 412 tanneries run by waterpower.


Many manufacturers such as “breweries, distilleries, salt and potash works, casting and steel furnaces, and works for animal and vegetable oils and refining drugs” needed heat to produce a finished product. To create heat required some type of fuel. Fortunately, for America’s future, there was “no limit to our fund of charcoal,” in Coxe’s opinion, because of America’s rich endowment of forest lands which Coxe felt had to be cleared in any case since they impeded “the cultivation of the richest soils.


The bakers and brickmakers of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore commonly consumed prodigious quantities of pitch pine. Hatters of Pittsburgh, on the other hand, preferred charcoal made from white maple. Boats sailed all along the Erie Canal picking up wood to fuel the nation’s largest saltworks, located in upstate New York. Boiling rooms, in which the salt water was evaporated, occupied a three-mile portion of the canal’s shoreline. They produced 2 million bushels of salt per year. The salt went to Canada, Michigan, Chicago, and all points west. Farmers were the largest purchasers, using the salt for preserving meat they marketed. Steam engines, which in the 1830s began to free factories from their dependence on water sites, usually burned wood as their fuel.


Throughout the nation charcoal-burning iron mills produced 19 million tons of iron between 1830 and 1890. During the heyday of the British charcoal-burning iron industry, which dated from the 1540s to the 1750s, the entire nation produced in a sixty-year period somewhat more than 1 million tons of iron.


Michigan, famous for its iron ore and pine forests, had one furnace that smelted 9,500 tons of iron each year.


The average annual output for a single English furnace amounted to around 350 tons


In 1790 the U.S. had only 4 million people living in its territories. This doubled to 8 million in 1810, and by 1880 there were over 50 million inhabitants. All these people needed housing and the great majority resided in dwellings built of wood.


Wood was the principal material from which all land-transport vehicles were built. Carriage makers and wagon-wrights made axles out of hickory and wheel spokes from white oak. White oak also formed the waggoner’s very flexible whip.


Roads were made passable by setting logs ten to twelve feet long across marshy or muddy portions. Vehicles could only advance over the log-covered sections in leaps and starts.


A more refined type of wooden pavement, plank, enhanced travel comfort by eliminating the roads’ extremely dusty condition in summer and their muddy state in winter. Unlike log roads, any stretch covered with plank was welcomed by travelers.


The necessity of crossing the many watercourses while traveling entailed a tremendous amount of bridge building. Bridges were usually made of wood, owing to its cheapness, according to an engineer. Many were quite large. The one that spanned the Schuykull River in Philadelphia measured 1,500 feet long. The bridge that crossed the Delaware River at Trenton was twice that length.




Because the rivers and lakes made it possible to travel by water through almost the entire territory that comprised the American nation in 1783, Jedidiah Morse felt that “the United States … seems to have been formed by nature for the most intimate union.” Canals rounded out what nature “forgot” to do. The Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Hudson River, making it possible to sail from the Atlantic to the foot of the Rocky Mountains.


The vast network of watercourses in the United States allowed woodsmen to cut timber thousands of miles away from their markets without worrying about transportation problems. During winter, loggers felled trees, dressed them into logs, and dragged them with teams of oxen over hardened snow to the nearest stream. “When the ice thaws, the logs … are launched into numerous streams in the neighborhood in which they have been cut and floated down into the larger rivers where they are stopped by … a line of logs extending the breadth of the river. Then every lumberman searches out his timber and forms it into a raft, floating it down the river to its destination.”


Pine logs from Minnesota and Wisconsin headed south in this fashion, floating from tributaries of the Mississippi into the main river. “The river from end to end was flaked with … timber rafts,” Mark Twain recalled. He nostalgically remembered “the annual procession of mighty rafts that used to glide by Hannibal”. Each raft had “an acre or so of white, sweet smelling boards, a crew of two dozen men or more, three or four wigwams scattered about the raft’s vast level for storm quarters …,” according to Twain. Just like Huck Finn, Twain, as a child, would “swim out a quarter or third of a mile” with his friends and “get on these rafts and have a ride.”


Timber was not the only cargo floated down the Mississippi. Many rafts carried grain produced by the many new farms that had sprung up along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries. To minimize carrying costs, the grain was first milled and then loaded onto rafts, called flatboats, for the long haul to New Orleans where the produce would be sold and freighted by oceangoing vessels. Once rid of his cargo, the flat-boatman had to sell his boat as he could not float back home against the current: it would be broken up for timber. He returned home by foot, usually walking thousands of miles to return.


The flatboat and other rafts suffered a major and insurmountable defect: they could only sail with the current. When farmers in the lower Ohio valley began producing large quantities of crops and could find no other market but Pittsburgh, a method of navigation was needed to transport produce upstream. The development of the keelboat initially solved the problem. Running boards from bow to stern on either side of the boat distinguished the keelboat from all others. Five men on each side held poles, set in sockets, that reached into the water. They placed their poles near the bow, faced the stern, and with bodies bent, walked slowly, poles against their shoulder, along the running board to the end of the boat, and then raced back to the head of the boat for another round. With the pilot steering, they propelled upriver in this fashion these long, narrow boats with twenty to forty tons of freight on board. Each man in a keelboat could push forward two or three tons twenty miles per day upstream while a team of five packhorses and one man could transport only half a ton at the same speed.


Steamboats beat out all competition. A round-trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans by keelboat took six or seven months while the same voyage by steamboat was accomplished in a little more than three weeks.  Keel boats became obsolete.


Comparing steamboats to land transport, a writer in 1842 showed their advantage:   If each wagon carried two tons of goods, you’d need 25,000 wagons to hold what one steamship can carry.  And steam boats not only go ten times faster than wagons, they can travel around the clock.  To match them you’d need 250,000, or a wagon every 106 feet of the road for 5,000 miles.


The number of steamers plying the Ohio, Mississippi, and their tributaries grew rapidly between the 1810s and the outbreak of the Civil War, greatly exceeding the number of steam-powered vessels traversing the Atlantic. So many were afloat that when night fell, an observer on the riverbank could see “steamer after steamer” sweeping by, “sounding, thundering on, blazing with … thousands of lights, casting long, brilliant reflections on the fast rolling water beneath.” At times, the traffic thickened to such a degree that one after another would pass, appearing to someone standing on shore “like so many comets passing in Indian file.


François Michaux pointed out to Robert Fulton the difficulty he would face in trying to obtain coal along the routes his new steamships would take. Fulton quickly responded that his ships would burn wood instead. Relying on wood to power his ships would definitely resolve the fuel problem, he told Michaux, since “the banks of the Mississippi were almost uninterruptedly covered with thick forests.


Great quantities of wood were needed for fuel. The large steamboat Eclipse, for example, had an array of fifteen boilers. To keep them heated “required wood by the carload.” When steamboats first appeared on the rivers, there was no organized system for provisioning them with fuel. Once north of Natchez, Mississippi, crews depended on driftwood or getting wood at settlements along the river. Sometimes they had to tie up at a village for several days before enough wood was found. On other occasions, crew members had to land the boat near a forest and go into the wilderness to cut wood.


Eventually, thousands of wood yards were set up along the banks of every navigable river simply to provide steamers with fuel. Backwoodsmen brought the timber they had cut to these depots and hacked them into proper size for the ships’ furnaces. To the civilized eye, many of these men had the appearance of being “half horse, half alligator, all wild originals to a man.” At night, the owners of these wood lots kept gigantic fires blazing so those onboard the boats could see the yards and fuel up. Stopping every two hours or so to take on fuel and then waiting several hours more for it to be loaded on board wasted many precious hours. To eliminate such delays, flatboats piled with wood waited in the middle of the river for a steamer to approach. If the steamer needed fuel, its crew lashed the flatboat to theirs and as they pushed upriver, “the logs were thrown aboard.


Boats passing up and down the Mississippi bought around fifty thousand cords a year from them, paying $1.25 a cord.


Wood ranked high among the cargoes transported by steamboat. From Michigan, steamers on Lake Huron transported timber, lumber, and shingles to the Atlantic states which, by the 1830s, did not have enough wood of their own. New England’s local supplies had become scarce by 1835 due to “200 years of occupation and settlement, with the pursuit of shipbuilding and other industries, having nearly cleared the primitive forests from such parts of the country as were accessible from water courses,” according to a 19th-century authority on shipbuilding.


Of the 38,619 ships that were in service in 1880, only five or six were built of iron. The rest were constructed almost entirely of wood.




Trestles and ties are expected to be of wood. But rails? Yes, in the early days, the rails of most lines were wooden. William Nowlin lived in Michigan during its settlement and as a youth watched the building of a railroad through his neighborhood. He described the way the railroadmen constructed the rails. “They took timbers as long as trees … hewed them on each side and flattened them down to about a foot in thickness,” Nowlin recollected, “then laid them on blocks which were placed in the bed of the road. They were laid lengthwise … far enough apart so that they would be directly under the wheels of the cars.” The tops of the timbers were covered with a thin strap of iron, saving the railroads much money by reducing their expenditure for iron.


When building any railroad in America, Mackay added, “it is seldom that the Americans have to look far, or to pay much for timber.” The availability of cheap wood was one of the main reasons American railroads cost much less to construct than those in England. In America, according to David Stevenson, “wood, which is the principal material used in their construction, is got at very small cost,” while “with us, in the construction of a line,” Mackay added, “timber figures as an item of expense by no means insignificant.” Mackay estimated that the English had to pay six times more than Americans to lay a mile of track.


English locomotives burned coal. With plenty of timber growing along the right-of-way of most railroads in America, or at least close by, American trains used wood as their only fuel up to the Civil War. Fuel needs of New York Central engines required the line to put up 115 woodsheds along its track. If the woodsheds were stacked against each other, they would have covered almost five miles. An Indiana railroad that ran north-south from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River placed its “wood-up” stations 20 to 25 miles apart. The largest one was located at Lafayette, Indiana, and could hold fourteen carloads of wood. The wood yard at Columbus, Nebraska, dwarfed Lafayette’s, measuring a half mile in length and having a capacity to hold 1,000 cords of wood.


Trains usually stopped every two hours to take on wood for fuel.


Railroads liberated Americans from their dependence on waterways for shipping freight and personal travel.  Canal traffic rarely moved faster than four miles per hour and proved quite costly. The railroads not only slashed expenses but saved much time.


America’s supply of timber provided pioneers with all their needs. Upon arriving at the usual 160-acre spread in the middle of the forest, the pioneer family constructed a temporary shelter, building a shanty from hemlock boughs. Once that was standing, giving the family a modicum of protection, they began to build a more permanent structure, chopping down enough logs to construct the four walls of their house. Peeled bark roofed the house, split logs served as flooring, and the door was made of hewed plank which was locked with a wooden latch. The house was furnished with wooden stumps for chairs and even hinges were made from wood.

With the house constructed, pioneers began fence building. The land to be turned into fields had to be protected from animals, including their own livestock. A good worker could, in one day, split approximately two hundred fence rails after felling the trees and cutting them to proper size.

In the Midwest, where most of the early pioneers settled, during winter “a fire [had to] be kept going constantly lest the room be chilled at once,” an early settler recalled. When feeding such a fire, William Nowlin, the child of a pioneer, recalled, Father “would tell us children to stand back and take the chairs out of the way. Then he would roll the log into the fireplace.” Nowlin wrote that the logs his father brought in were usually twenty inches thick and five to six feet long.

Leaves falling from the hardwood forests every autumn for millennia greatly enriched the soil the settlers farmed. As Edmund Dana informed those wishing to cultivate lands in Ohio, “Nature has provided for the husbandman … inexhaustible support and sources of wealth,” exempting him “from that tedious and expensive process of manuring, to which farmers of old settled countries, rendered sterile by a long course of cropping, are necessarily subjected.”

What farmers did with their felled timber depended on where they settled. If they owned land in the Northeast, pioneers could bank on selling it for cooking and heating fuel, which was in great demand, especially by city dwellers. The money earned from the sale usually paid for the property. In fact, land sellers used this as an enticement, stating in advertisements: “Brace up, young man. You have lived on your parents long enough. Buy this farm, cut off the wood, haul it to market, get your money for it and pay for the farm. … The owner estimated there will be five hundred cords of market wood.”

Farmers could sell their timber for other uses, too. The son of an Indiana settler wrote, “what had to be cut … of the white oak … for the clearing of fields was made into staves for cooperage.” Hundreds of barrels were fashioned from these trees in which pork and flour were eventually packed.

Sometimes settlers could find no market for the logs they had to cut. Such was the case for the Nowlins before the railroad came. In those times, they just burned the timber where they had felled it. The younger Nowlin estimated that enough wood had been set ablaze “to have made 5,000 cords of wood.” Throughout America, settlers engaged in such practices when no one wanted to buy their wood.

Wood, not quality of soil, played the deciding role in where settlers established their farms. If the land west of the Appalachians and east of the Great Plains had also been all prairie and hence timberless, “though unconceivably fertile, it would [have been] uninhabitable by man,” an early encyclopedia on life in America pointed out, “by reason of lack of fuel, fencing and building material.

The difference in settlement patterns of this forested region and the Great Plains demonstrates the importance of trees in the choice of a homestead. While over a million people had settled such states as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana by 1860, the combined population of Kansas and Nebraska did not exceed 40,000 at that time. Even in these two states, the existence of forests influenced where people settled. The majority of Kansas’s population in 1860 lived in the river valleys of the northern and eastern sections of the state where quite a lot of oak, black walnut, cottonwood, and hickory grew. During the early part of the 19th century, settlers and Indians agreed that the lack of timber growing in the Great Plains would severely restrict settlement. Zebulon Pike, the first American to explore the area, observed that on the banks of the Kansas, Platte, and Arkansas rivers and their tributaries, it would be “only possible to introduce a limited population … the wood now in the country would not be sufficient for a moderate share of the population more than 15 years and it would be out of the question to think of it in manufactures.

In contrast with the pioneers living in forested areas, who never lacked wood for fuel, fencing, and building, anyone trying to set up a farm on the prairie could not even find an armful of timber to pick up. Buffalo chips were the only fuel found in large quantities, but the supply varied with the animals’ migration habits. Francis Parkman discovered this on his famous ventures along the Oregon Trail. The first year out he found an endless supply of chips to burn; the next year, after traveling along the Platte for four days continuously, he could not find a single chip.

Farmers on the Great Plains had to fence in their land to protect their crops from herds of wandering cattle. The huge outlay of capital required to minimally fence their plots threatened to break the many young settlers who ventured there “with strong hands and little cash.” Although they could buy an entire spread for under $20, the cost of fencing it averaged around $1000.

The railroads’ ability to provide the Great Plains with a reliable supply of timber made the region more attractive for settlement than forested areas, in the opinion of John Wesley Powell, head of the United States Geological Survey in the 1870s, since farmers did not have to waste precious time and energy clearing land for cultivation. The ground here awaited immediate plowing and planting. People moved to the plains en masse once they could get enough wood.

From the end of the Revolution to the beginning of the Civil War, America grew into a great nation.

Not many appreciated the role wood played in this development, but Increase Lapham, a respected scientist, did. “Few persons … realize … the amount we owe to the native forests of our country for the capital and wealth our people are now enjoying,” he wrote. “Yet without the fuel, the buildings, the fences, furniture and [a] thousand utensils, and machines of every kind, the principal materials for which are taken directly from the forests,” Lapham informed his readers, “we should be reduced to a condition of destitution.” He therefore maintained that when evaluating the factors that had led to America’s astounding prosperity, “anyone who studies closely and carefully the elements that have contributed to that greatness will find cheap lumber and cheap fuel [wood] the greatest of all factors.” This was because “Cheap houses, cheap bread and cheap transportation for passengers and freights, are among the fundamental elements of a nation’s growth and prosperity … A nation that produces the raw material for manufacture at low cost … which moves its people, its products and manufactures quickly and cheaply, is in the best position” to prosper, Lapham concluded.

Lapham found that the manner in which Americans had exploited the woods to achieve such material success was a cause for serious reflection rather than celebration. The devastation he saw as a consequence led him to write in 1867, at the request of the legislature of Wisconsin, his Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees Now Going on So Rapidly in the State of Wisconsin. His report discussed “the experience of other countries, ancient and modern, whose forests have been improvidently destroyed … the effects of clearing land of forest trees, upon springs, streams and rainfall … how [forests] temper winds, protect the earth … enrich the soil and modify the climate … the economic value of forests in their relation to cheap houses, cheap fuel, cheap bread, cheap motive power, cheap transportation and cheap freights … [and] the propagation and culture of trees…

Almost 5 billion cords of wood had been consumed for fuel in fireplaces, industrial furnaces, steamboats, and railroads. To obtain 5 billion cords meant the cutting of about 200,000 square miles of woodlands, an area nearly equal to all the land that comprises the states of Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Half of all these cords were consumed in the 17 years that preceded the publication of Lapham’s work.

The amount of timber felled for building between 1810 and 1867 was minuscule when compared with the quantity removed for fuel. Still, approximately 25,000 square miles of forest went to build houses, ships, railroads, bridges, wagons, waterwheels, and thousands of other necessary objects. At first glance, fashioning railroad ties did not appear to make great inroads on the forest. But because only vigorous young trees were selected for ties, great quantities of potentially valuable timber were being prematurely plucked out of America’s timberlands, imperiling future supplies.

Fuel cutters usually cut relatively young trees that measured, near the base of the trunk, between twelve and twenty inches in diameter since the small ones took less effort to chop down.

Clearing land for cultivation also contributed to the deforestation problem. In just one decade, from 1850 to 1860, farmers destroyed 31,250 square miles of timberlands in order to plant crops.

Pasturing of livestock in the forest also inflicted great damage to the woodlands. Cattle, horses, and sheep consumed large amounts of seedlings, destroying future growth. They also ate bark, which debilitated and many times killed sizable trees. Hogs rooted up young pines and other species to get at their roots and also gorged on the seeds of a wide variety of trees, showing a preference for the nuts of beeches, chestnuts, pine, and white oaks over inedible seeds of other species, seriously changing the natural growth in the woods, especially in hardwood forests.

“the pasturage of the forest is not only enormously expensive in the destruction of young plants and seeds, but the habit induces the burning over every year of great tracts of woodlands, which would otherwise be permitted to grow up naturally in order to hasten the early growth of spring herbage … all undergrowth and seedlings are swept away … and not infrequently fires thus started destroy valuable bodies of timber.

The amount of forests lost due to pasturage and felling trees to clear land for cultivation, for lumber, and for fuel increased over time, accelerating from 1,600 square miles per year in 1835 to 7,000 square miles 20 years later. As the pace of deforestation picked up, the area of land covered by dense forest declined considerably. In 1850, 25% of the land area of United States was densely forested; 20 years later, this figure had dropped to 15%.


When Mannaseh Cutler entered Ohio in 1787 to explore the region, he encountered “innumerable herds of … elk and buffalo … sheltered in the groves.” These animals had all but disappeared by the 1840s as the great forest land that was their home faded away. Nowlin correctly credited people such as his father with destroying what “was a few years before … the hunting ground of the Red Man.” On account of the work of people such as the Nowlins, the Indians could no longer “get venison to eat or bark to make huts, for the beasts are run away and the trees cut down,” a surviving Native American complained. The Great Seal of the State of Indiana succinctly sums up the metamorphoses of the flora and fauna of the Midwest as a result of American settlement. A tree stump lies on the ground as a pioneer fells another tree and a buffalo flees to escape the havoc.

Seventy years later another report on the condition of America’s forests appeared in the census of 1880. The author, Charles Sargent, wrote of protecting the trees, rather than indiscriminately chopping them down. “Forests perform … important duties in protecting the surface of the ground and in regulating and maintaining the flow of rivers,” Sargent informed his readers. “In mountainous regions they are essential to prevent destructive torrents, and mountains cannot be stripped of their forest covering without entailing serious dangers upon the whole community … Inroads have already been made into these forests,” he warned: “the ax, fire, and the destructive agency of browsing animals are now everywhere invading them … [and] if the forests which control the flow of the great rivers of the country perish, the whole community will suffer widespread calamity which no precautions taken after the mischief has been done can avert or future expenditure prevent.” “The American people must learn,” Sargent professed, “that a forest, whatever its extent and resources, can be exhausted in a surprisingly short space of time through total disregard in its treatment,” A detailed look at the condition of the forests east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio from facts compiled by Sargent for the census report showed reason for such a warning. The forests of New York, Sargent found, “are no longer important as a source of general lumber supply … White oak … has become scarce … Elm, ash, hickory, and other woods are reported scarce …” As for Pennsylvania, “merchantable pine has now almost disappeared … manufactures using hardwood report great deterioration and scarcity of the material.” As a consequence, it “must soon lose with its rapidly disappearing forests, its position as one of the great lumber producing states,” Moving west to Ohio, Sargent reported that its “original forest has now been generally removed … everywhere the walnut and other valuable timbers have been culled, and Ohio must soon depend almost exclusively for the lumber which it consumes upon the northern pineries …” Conditions were no better in neighboring Indiana. “The forests of the state have been largely removed,” according to Sargent, and “no large bodies of the original timber remain … at the present rate of destruction the forests of the state must lose all commercial importance … Serious inroads have already been made upon the forests of Michigan,” the dismal compilation continued: “the hardwood has been generally cleared from the southern counties … and timber remaining in this part of the state … can hardly suffice for the wants of its population.” As for the great pine forests of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the extent of their stands had become “dangerously small in proportion to the country’s consumption of white pine lumber,” leading Sargent to conclude that “the entire exhaustion of these forests in a comparatively short time is certain.

Another alarming report preceding the 1880 census by only three years claimed that “the states of Ohio and Indiana, and the southern part … of … Michigan, so recently a part of the great East-American forest, have even now a greater percentage of treeless area than Austria, and the North-German Empire, which have been settled and cultivated for upward of a thousand years.” By the time the 1880 census came out, it had become increasingly clear that the forests in the northeastern quadrant of the United States were going to become just another chapter in humanity’s piecemeal destruction of the planet. One of America’s leading forestry authorities, N. Egleston, lamented this fact, writing in an 1882 issue of Harper’s Monthly, “we are … following … the course of nations which have gone before us. The nations of Europe and Asia have been as reckless in their destruction of the forests as we have been, and by that recklessness have brought themselves unmeasurable evils, and upon the land itself barrenness and desolation. The face of the earth in many instances had been changed as the result of the destruction of the forests, from a condition of fertility and abundance to that of a desert.” Hoping that education might prevent the same happening to America, Egleston felt that “The mass of the people … should have set before them the warnings from history.” We, too, must learn from what has happened in the past, and by doing so, we can help save what remains of our world’s forests.

In 1890, when Pinchot returned from studying forestry in Europe, he found to his shock that in America, instead of the practice of forestry, “the most rapid and extensive forest destruction ever known was in full swing.” “The American Colossus,” Pinchot accurately observed, “was fiercely intent on appropriating and exploiting the riches of the richest continents—grasping with both hands, reaping where he had not sown, wasting what he had thought would last forever.

“At long last, however, the reaction began,” reported Pinchot. John Muir described that reaction: “Lovers of their country, bewailing its baldness, are now crying aloud, ‘Save what is left of the forests!’” Opposition to the American style of forestry—“Get timber by hook or crook, get it quick and cut it quick”—was quite justified in Pinchot’s opinion. “Any great evil eventually gives rise to protest.” At first, public opinion dismissed those trying to break the onslaught of forest devastation “as impractical theorists, fanatics, more or less touched in the head.” A flurry of articles sympathetic to the views of Muir and Pinchot, such as those appearing in America’s premier magazines like Harper’s Monthly and the Atlantic Monthly during the last three decades of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, helped change that opinion. Through these articles, people learned how intact forests protected much of America, especially in the West. Muir articulated well the importance of forests to the welfare of the nation. “It has been shown over and over again that if mountains were to be stripped of their trees and underbrush, and kept bare and sodless,” Muir wrote, “both lowlands and mountains would speedily become little better than deserts compared with their present beneficent fertility. During heavy rainfalls and while winter accumulations of snow were melting, the larger streams would swell into destructive torrents; cutting deep, rugged-edged gullies, carrying away the fertile humus and soil as well as sand and rocks, filling up and overflowing their lower channels, and covering the lowland fields with raw detritus.

Drought and barrenness would follow.” In contrast, Muir continued, “the cool shades of the forest give rise to moist beds and currents of air, and the sod of grasses and the various flowering plants and shrubs thus fostered, together with the network of tree roots, absorb and hold back the rain and the waters from melting snow, compelling them to ooze and percolate and flow gently through the soil in streams that never dry. All the pine needles and rootlets and blades of grass, and the fallen decaying trunks of trees, are dams, storing the bounty of the clouds and dispensing it in perennial life-giving streams, instead of allowing it to gather suddenly and rush headlong in short-lived devastating floods.” Pinchot agreed with Muir’s assessment. He wrote that “successful irrigation involves and demands the preservation of forest,” and emphasized, as Muir did, that the government should set up forest: reserves in the west where “preservation is essential.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science came to agree with arguments such as those presented by Muir and Pinchot for the establishment of government-protected forest reserves. The organization therefore urged President Harrison to withdraw from sale all timberlands in federal hands. Surprisingly, Harrison complied. His proclamation taking millions of acres of forestland off the market and placing them in reserve ended a century of government giveaways, primarily for the enrichment of powerful corporate entities. The establishment of these reserves set the foundation for today’s National Forests.

Subsequent presidents added to these first reserves. By 1899, they totaled 43 million acres. Gifford Pinchot was now chief forester of the United States. Pinchot wrote A Primer of Forestry to guide the wise use of America’s newly acquired forestlands. He began by describing the many functions of forests: they serve as home to many animals, “tend to prevent floods and droughts, supply fuel,” which Pinchot noted was “one of the first necessaries of life,” and provide lumber, “without which cities, railroads and all the great achievements of material progress would have been either long delayed or wholly impossible.” In fact, Pinchot let his readers know, “From every point of view [forests are] one of the most helpful friends of man. Perhaps no other material has done so much for the human race.” Despite its utilitarian value, the forest is as beautiful as it is useful, according to Pinchot.

While Pinchot advocated the provision of timber as one of the functions of the forest reserves, as did John Muir, he carefully instructed, “Draw from the forest while protecting it.” He was emphatic, though, in his stand against what then was called “clean cutting,” known today as clear-cutting. In one speech, he made it definitely clear that though he was “a cutter down of trees, it by no means follows that the face of the land should be denuded.

Old growth occupied a special place in Muir’s and Pinchot’s hearts.

“The Big Trees,” the giant Sequoias remained a special delight to both Muir and Pinchot. Muir described the species ecstatically as “nature’s forest masterpiece.” Pinchot regarded them as “the grandest, the largest, the oldest, the most majestically graceful of trees.” He deemed them “beautiful and worthy of preservation” and their destruction “as complete and deplorable as the untouched forest is unparalleled.

At first Pinchot thought that cooperation between the timber industry and the government for the benefit of America’s forests could be achieved. As the years wore on, Pinchot soured on the idea when he realized that the lumber industry “is trying to fool the American people” into believing that the industry “has given up the practice of forest devastation.” As a consequence of the destructive practices of the timber industry, Pinchot pointed out, “Of 822,000,000 acres of virgin forest only about one-eighth remains.

Army Major George Ahern, the man Pinchot commissioned to write an exposé of the timber industry’s destructive policies, described the problem in more human terms. “The facts tell a moving story,” wrote Ahern, “of forest devastation, abandoned towns, abandoned farms, the closing down of hundreds of wood-using industries, as the centers of lumber production shift from the Northeast to the Lake States, to the South, and finally to the last stand in the Pacific Northwest.” “Public control of lumber is the only measure capable of putting an end to forest devastation in America,” Pinchot came to believe. “Without it forest devastation has never been stopped anywhere. Without it forest devastation cannot be stopped in the United States.” Despite his best efforts, however, just the opposite happened. Private timber interests gained de facto control of the Forest Service after World War II and perversely proved Pinchot a prophet.

With industry calling the shots, all conservation values, which served as the basis for the founding of the United States Forest Service, fell to the wayside. The new generation of foresters working for the Service knew that failure in all environmental areas, but success at turning out more board feet of lumber, would bring a raise in pay and position. And the converse was true as well. Hence, foresters saw only lumber waiting to be harvested when they looked at the trees. Water quality and soil integrity no longer mattered. It was all about the tree cut.

Advances in technology conspired with the new ideology to destroy what even the nineteenth-century “freebooters” couldn’t get their hands on. Terrain and distance from markets had restricted the amount of destruction possible in earlier days, especially in the mountainous western National Forests. The chain saw, which came of age after World War II, could cut down far more trees per hour than axe or saw. Timber growing on any slope could now be cut as Caterpillars, winches, or even helicopters could pick it up and pile the logs in yards, where trucks maneuvered up roads cut by “dozers,” loaded up, and headed for the mill. Such capital-intensive forestry demanded taking down as many trees as possible in one fell swoop in order to maximize profits.

The greed of the 1980s, combined with “conveyor-belt” lumbering, brought devastation to a new level. As reported in Fortune and other magazines, the leveraged buyout of Pacific Lumber and its consequences was a cautionary tale that not even the most wild-eyed conservationist could invent. Before the takeover, the company had carefully stewarded the land. On its property grew 193,000 acres of redwoods, most of which were from 200 to 2,000years old, the largest as tall as twenty stories with trunks measuring up to 15 feet in diameter. The original company had cut only a few large trees from each stand to avoid flooding and silting of neighboring salmon-filled rivers. Practicing such judicious logging left Pacific Lumber holding hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of timber.

These jewels attracted corporate raider Charles Hurwitz. To purchase Pacific Lumber, Hurwitz borrowed nearly a billion dollars from junk bond dealer Michael Milken. To pay the loan back, he had to cut the forest down.

Studies have shown that forests and their soil contain 400 times more carbon than that emitted by the burning of fossil fuels each year.  In addition, human-induced loss of forests and their conversion to other uses since 1850 has contributed more carbon to the atmosphere than any other source but the burning of fossil fuels, which are for the most part, very old plants and trees.


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Part 6 Raven Rock. Alarming quotes from leaders

Preface. This is the 6th part of my book review of: Graff, G.M. 2018. Raven Rock. The Story of the U.S. Governments Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die. Simon and Schuster.

These are some of the things presidents, generals, and other leaders said in the book that struck me.

Raven Rock parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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



Truman stopped one Oval Office debate over civilian versus military control of the bombs cold, saying, “You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.


As Eisenhower said in one meeting, if war happened, the nation didn’t have “enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the street.”   “The destruction,” Eisenhower told his cabinet at one point, “might be such that we might have ultimately to go back to bows and arrows.”

Eisenhower gave a speech where he told the public that “The jet plane that roars over your head costs three quarter of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning ten thousand dollars every year is going to make in his lifetime. What world can afford this sort of thing for long? We are in an armaments race. Where will it lead us? At worst to atomic warfare.  At best, to rob every people and nation on earth of the fruits of their own toil. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”  This speech became one of the best known of the Cold War.

Eisenhower, during an NSC meeting said that postwar planning was useless.   None of the world’s nations would exist as we knew them, he argued, let alone be able to rise to the occasion of building a postwar peace.  After a nuclear war, every single nation, including the United States would emerge with a dictatorship.”


Kennedy never forgot the impression the nuclear drill made, and called it “chilling.” We were a nation preparing for our own destruction.

The idea of community shelters clashed with Republican Nelson Rockefellers push for private home shelters.   Rockefeller bordered on the obsessive about civil defense—he’d led a study panel in 1958 that pushed for shelters and had since adopted his own rhetoric. He had shelters built at the New York governor’s mansion and his own Fifth Avenue residence. He proselytized every chance he could. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, after meeting the governor during a visit to New York, remarked: “Governor Rockefeller is a very strange man. All he wants to talk about is bomb shelters. Why does he think I am interested in bomb shelters?

When the Kennedy administration had pushed General Power to modify the existing “overkill” strategy to focus solely on military targets, Power had objected: “Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards.” His next conclusion had abruptly ended the discussion: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!”


As the noon hour passed on January 20, 1969, Johnson relaxed. “When Richard Nixon took the oath,” President Johnson said later, “the greatest burden lifted from me that I have ever carried in my life.” As he explained, “Never a day went by that I wasn’t frightened or scared that I might be the man that started World War III.


FEMA official William Chipman had optimistically pointed to the experience of Europeans during the Bubonic Plague, which had wiped out a third of the population during the Middle Ages. “It was horrifying at the time, and yet six or eight years later, not only had English society rebounded but, by God, those people went out on an expeditionary force to France,” he explained. What he called the “post-attack United States” would, with time, resemble the pre-attack United States and “eventually” even restore traditional institutions and a democratic government: “As I say, ants will eventually build another anthill.

Deputy undersecretary of Defense for Strategic and Nuclear Forces brushed off concerns about the threat of war with the Soviet Union. “Everybody’s going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around. Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors, and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it. Jones believed nuclear war was not only survivable but that if we were prepared for it, destruction would be very limited.  “With protection of people only, your recovery time to prewar GNP levels would probably be six or eight years. If we used the Russian methods for protecting both the people and the industrial means of production, recovery time could be two to four years.

Around the same time, an official in the Office of Civil Defense wrote, “A nuclear war could alleviate some of the factors leading to today’s ecological disturbances that are due to current high-population concentrations and heavy industrial populations.



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Part 5 Raven Rock. Hidey holes for government and military officials to carry on democracy after nuclear war destroys the planet

Preface. This is the fifth part of my book review of: Graff, G.M. 2018. Raven Rock. The Story of the U.S. Governments Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die. Simon and Schuster.  There are so many doomsday shelters listed in this book that I gave up trying to list all of them, and there must be dozens if not hundreds not in the book because they’re Top Secret.

I’m interested in the government’s plans for a nuclear war because I have always assumed the government would have plans for the permanent emergency of declining fossil fuels.  After reading this book, I doubt it.  If they wouldn’t try to save the public for just two weeks after a nuclear war, they certainly aren’t planning forh Peak oil and everything else for that matter, or climate change.  On the other hands, there aren’t any solutions.  But I’d hoped they’d soften it a bit with rationing plans, preventing mass migrations, distributing food, and so on.  After all, in the 1980s when the government believed Peak Oil had arrived, there was a rationing plan (see my summary here).

Excerpts / summary of the book:

Only top government officials, staff, and some private experts were to be saved after nuclear doomsday, deep underground.  The public would be on their own, though theoretically we could all be saved — the National Speleological Society estimated the nation possessed enough caves to protect all Americans.

Underground shelters would help some, but the AEC concluded that even those who made it to a shelter would suffer a sorry fate. “When the survivors emerged from hiding, they would wander helplessly through a useless city.” Congressman Chet Holifield proposed publicly creating an alternate seat of government to ensure that the “nerve center of our nation” couldn’t be “paralyzed” by a Soviet atomic bomb.

In addition to the bunkers, a great deal of expense has also been spent on infrastructure such as massive communication systems, Marine helicopters, Air Force One, armored limousines, and screaming motorcades.

Many of those who were guaranteed a slot in a bunker refused, including all of the Presidents, the Supreme Court, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, National security advisor ZbigniewBrzezinski, countless people from all agencies since their families weren’t allowed to accompany them,

Many staff had no idea who would be evacuated, because having such a list was seen as a security risk, making it easier for an enemy to know who to target.  And in fact, private sector workers often had priority over government workers

On top of that, in the annual drills, the pentagon or White House official playing the role of the president never pressed the button, not even after an enemy missile strike and watch the United States be obliterated.  And this despite everyone knowing this was a drill and that nothing would happen.

In the real world I think it is even more likely this would happen.  It only takes a submarine missile launched off of the Atlantic coast about 14 minutes to hit its target, not enough time for anyone to make a decision, especially since there have been an alarming number of false alarms in the past.

Here’s a partial list of bunkers.  They’re well known to the soviets and Chinese, and most would not be able to survive a direct nuclear bomb hit, yet the government is still spending billions on them every year.

After 9-11, most of the bunkers got bigger and better, and communications and transportation to get government employees to shelters was improved as well.

Not all agencies were created equal, the USDA got to save 62 people, 3 from the forest service to work on fires in rural areas, 3 from Food and Nutrition Service to oversee distribution of USDA donated foods and emergency food stamps, and 2 from the Soil Conservation Service to work on the radiological contamination of water and soil.

Department of the Interior: grounds of a former college in Harpers Ferry.

Federal Reserve: Mount Pony, 70 miles south of Washington. Employees would be sharing their bunker with four billion dollars of cash to provide money, credit, and liquidity in the afterwards. The $2 bill introduced in 1976 was so unpopular that many of them also ended up in emergency bunkers.   Each of the 12 regional Federal reserve branches also had a relocation facility.   Gordon Grimwood, the Fed’s emergency planning officer said he couldn’t guarantee their plans would work, but after a nuclear war, everyone will take to the hill, and we’ll be back to tribal warfare and with no hope for national survival and recovery.

Intelligence Agencies: Peters Mountain, Charlottesville Virginia

Not all agencies were assigned to bunkers.  A large facility was set up at a 6,000 acre USDA cattle research station with 58 buildings, 75 miles away from D.C. in Front Royal, Virginia.  This was where 1,200 State Department employees would go, or nearby motels and apartments.

For a while bunker fever reigned, with at least 58 federal relocation sites for civilian agencies, and probably hundreds more that are still considered top secret.

One of the best of the hundreds of retreat bunkers was Mount Weather, dug out of a mountain and protected by nearly a quarter mile of granite.  This was where the top government officials at federal department s Agriculture, Commerce, HEW, HUD, Interior Labor, State, Transportation, and Treasury and federal agencies postal service, FCC, Federal Reserve, Selective Service, Federal Power Commission, Civil Service Commission, and Veterans administration would go.  There were some tensions about which agency got to send how many people to survive.  The Bureau of the Budget initially tried to lay claim to 400 of the 1,900 available spots at Mount Weather, but didn’t succeed in that.

Equally if not more impressive were two other mountain bunkers Raven Rock and Cheyenne mountain.

The irony is that none of these three massive under-mountain bunkers were likely to survive nuclear attack, and the Soviets certainly knew of their existence..

Even cities got in on the craze, Portland, Oregon, built a $670,000 bunker on top of Kelly Butte, about six and a half miles east of downtown, as well as some corporations, such as AT&T’s underground bunker in Netcong, New Jersey, Westinghouse Electric, based in Pittsburgh, kept its own relocation facility in an old limestone mine.

The Greenbrier luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs was where 1,000 congressional members and staff were slated to go. But telling all 535 members of Congress the evacuation’s location was an unnecessary security risk; the Greenbrier was not built to withstand a direct attack, so if its location became publicly known, its security would be ruined and its safety nullified. Thus, the Office of Defense Mobilization decided Congress simply wouldn’t be told in advance where to evacuate in an emergency. In later drills it was clear that few if any Congress members were likely to be told about their hidey-hole, and even less likely they’d be able to get there via a 6 hour train ride or in their autos.

Raven Rock parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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

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