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.