Continuing in my series of columns about things that are destroying the Earth, I thought I’d discuss a terrible oil mining project going on north of the border in Alberta. The Athabasca Oil Sands is one of the largest deposits of oil in North America, but the oil is very difficult to extract because it is inside rocks, which are mixed up with a lot of non-oil rocks. This project is so terrible that Environmental Defense– a particularly corporate environmental group–  labeled it “The Most Destructive Project on Earth.”

Mining for oil in the Tar Sands poses many of the same problems as fossil fuel extraction. First of all, is incredibly energy intensive. The enormous machines that mine the sands must sift through two tons of sand to produce one barrel of oil. This takes a lot of energy and it is estimated that the natural gas used to extract one barrel of oil could heat a families home for four days. By 2015 the oil mining of the Tar Sands is expected to emit between 108 and 126 million tons of CO2 annually.

Like coal mining in Black Mesa, Arizona oil extraction in the tar sands uses huge amounts of water.The project uses 95 billion gallon of water per year, or more than twice the annual use of the city of Calgary. This water, after it is used, is released into holding pools as a poisonous sludge, similar to the coal sludge pools in Appalachia. The mining operations in the Tar Sands generate more than 480 million gallons of toxic sludge daily, and the sludge pools cover, in total, more than 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space. These sludge pools contaminate local water, killing animals and endangering all life in the region.

One of the groups most affected by this project is, as usual, Canadian First Nations people. The indigenous people who have lived in the Boreal Forest for thousands of years are seeing their land destroyed and their lives threatened by a project they have no control over and from which they will see, at best, minimal benefits. People from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Lubicon Cree First Nation, and Athabasca Chipweyan First Nation have demanded a stop to the oil extraction, but so far without success. Another example of indigenous oppression to allow Western resource extraction.

Though this may seem to be a Canadian issue, it involves the United States in a major way: we buy 99% of Canadian oil exports, and Canada is our largest oil supplier.. This oil is being extracted to feed our ever expanding appetite for cheap fossil fuels. Canada represents a safer supplier than Middle Eastern countries, and politicians who promote energy security favor expanding Canadian imports. However, the Tar Sands example shows the fundamental weakness of the energy security discourse. The ideas of energy independence and energy security are often thrown into the debate on global warming, but they do not address the problems that are causing climate change. If all we want is to be energy independent, we can mine more coal and import oil from detrimental projects in friendly countries.

Our goal cannot simply be energy security, because that entails more destructive fossil fuel mining. To have a sustainable future we must get off fossil fuels all together, and abandoning the Canadian Tar Sands project is a good place to start.

  • E

    I applaud your series on things that are bad for the Earth. But without practical ways to fix these disasters, these blog posts just depress me.

  • Jon Booth

    at some point when i have more time (not on spring break) i’ll put forward something about my philosophy about fixing all these terrible things. but for now dont lose hope, and check out

  • Windtalker

    what is so sad about the reality of this story is that these rich corporations get rich of the blood of the lands while my people live in abject poverty and at times in third world conditions while the owners of such corporations live in mansions and have privet jets and limos they destroy our peoples way of live this is a living planet we are on here and she is crying out in agony for what they are doing this all must stop before she gets really mad and before my people die off of cancers and poverty the fish in these areas are born with two mouths the deer are born with five legs the rains rain down acid the waters are slowly being poisoned soon they will be death of us all.
    There is a Cree prophecy
    Only when the last tree has fallen
    only when the last river has been poisoned
    Only when the fish has been caught then man will find that money cannot be eaten.
    God bless

  • JD

    I should have quit reading after I got into the first paragraph where you described the oil as “inside rocks, which are mixed up with a lot of non-oil rocks”. I think this clearly defines your level of knowledge or understanding of Oil Sands or the projects. Yes, there are environmental concerns, but for a balanced, informative article I suggest reading the recent write-up in National Geographic.

  • nobec

    JD – something tells me the accuracy of the description of the extraction process is not the major concern of this article.

  • Jon Booth

    my point with the description was to say, in very basic terms, that the oil isnt bubbling out of the ground, and to get to it, the machines must go through lots of elements that are not oil.

  • Handsome B. Friendly

    is an employee of the oil company who is hired at a mediocre wage to post on forums and spread less negative information of the projects. Basically anti-slander propaganda…its kind of like PR… you can tell because who in the hell cares enough about protecting this kind of project to come onto an environmental awareness blog, and try to discredit someones blog.. lol

  • Handsome B. Friendly

    from above comment: JD is the employee….

  • Indiancareerclub

    My view with the description is that it is certain to protect this country and its people from disaster’s. One thing which worries me is that the innocent people and animals would die due to the toxic sludge coming out because of this project. Some action has to be taken in such a way the project continues with no harm to the living.

  • Anonymous

    walang kwenta!!!!