There's a stealth dirty oil mega-project sneaking into the United States. It's arriving piece by piece, pipeline by pipeline, refinery by refinery, and permit by permit -- but it's a singularly immense monstrosity conceived by Big Oil. It's called the Canadian Tar Sands, or as the oil industry prefers, Canadian Oil Sands.
And it's being brought to you by Sarah Palin and ExxonMobil.
Yes, the former beauty queen who inspired thousands to chant "Drill Baby Drill" last summer apparently also believes that a Mine is a Terrible Thing to Waste. Under Plan Palin, ExxonMobil and TransCanada would construct a 1700-mile natural gas pipeline from the Arctic, heading south.
But this gas won't be heading straight to the Lower 48, perhaps as a temporary alternative to America's greenhouse gas-belching, coal-fired power plants. No such luck. Instead, the pipeline will run to Alberta, where, based on current projections, about half of it is likely to be siphoned to help produce the dirtiest oil on earth.
There's a tricky thing about producing oil from the tar sands: the oil there really isn't oil. It's called bitumen, and it's so thick and heavy -- tar-like, if you will -- that it can't be drilled in conventional ways. About 20 percent of this bitumen is dredged up in some of the largest strip mines on the planet. Creating enough waste to fill Yankee Stadium every two days. As I wrote in my book, Coming Clean,
"To get oil from Canada's tar sand, more landscape must be excavated than was moved for the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and the ten largest dams in the world -- combined."
The other 80 percent is buried too deep for strip mining. In these locations, massive quantities of natural gas are piped in to make steam. The steam is injected into the ground, liquefying the bitumen. Although this operation is undoubtedly an engineering accomplishment, it's also kind of, well, stupid. Eric Reguly, a reporter for the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail described burning natural gas in the tar sands this way, "Burning a clean fuel to make a dirty fuel is a kind of reverse alchemy, like turning gold into lead."
Commenting on the tar sands three years ago, Al Gore said, "It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes. It seems reasonable, to them, because they've lost sight of the rest of their lives."
It's also a climate disaster. Producing oil from Canada's tar sands creates up to three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil. Dr. James Hansen, the country's leading climate scientist, says that if we still hope to avoid catastrophic climate change, there's simply no room in the atmosphere for the carbon from tar sands and other non-conventional fossil fuels. Development of the tar sands is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and will make combating climate change in North America virtually impossible. That might not be a concern to Ms. Palin, but it should be to the rest of us.
This article was co-written by Michael Brune and Kenny Bruno. Bruno is Campaign Coordinator for Corporate Ethics International.
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