BY Andrew NIikIforuk, a Calgary-based business reporter and the author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.
For a free and complete .pdf download of Nikiforuk's book follow the link at the bottom of this article. *
American reliance on fuel from Alberta's tar sands obstructs President Obama's vow to break America's addiction to "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil. For this reason, the world's largest energy project will likely dominate political discussions when President Barack Obama visits Canada on Feb 19th.
Seven years ago, Canada surpassed Saudi Arabia as the United States' major supplier of oil by exploiting shallow deposits of a tarry, badly degraded, and unconventional resource. Switching over to Canadian oil made sense at the time because the tar sands are a large and secure resource. Better still, no money spent on Canadian bitumen is redirected to fundamentalist sects or Middle East insurgencies.
But replacing Arabia's tainted oil with tar sand bitumen is no pipeline to energy security. It's more like switching your family's mortgage from Countrywide Financial to Bear Stearns.
The million barrel a day project has already created monstrous environmental problems. 400 tonne trucks and energy-guzzling steam operations are required to force bitumen out of the ground. In the Tar Sands, enough earth to build seven Panama Canals has already been moved. When fully developed, the tar sands project will industrialize a segment of the boreal forest as large as Florida.
Pollution is the most obvious problem. Big mining projects always produce lakes of toxic sludge: generally, Canada regulates these poorly. But in Alberta there are a dozen toxic ponds -- among the world's largest pools of such waste -- that contain bitumen, poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cyanide and naphthenic acids (carcinogens and fish killers, all). These ponds occupy 80 square miles of forest along the Athabasca River and contain enough sludge to fill 300 Love Canals. Canada's timid National Energy Board, calls the buildup of these leaky ponds "daunting."
The problem of pollution also includes what the Tar Sands produces. Carbon-rich bitumen contains 20 to 30 per cent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude. For this reason, the tar sands account for 4% of Canada's carbon emissions. Over the past decade, Canada has spent $6-billion on climate change programs, but not met a single target. Right now the tar sands are Canada's largest source of climate changing pollution, and produce more climate warming gases than many industrial nations including New Zealand.
But besides pollution, there is the issue of waste. Bitumen production is 'water intense' requiring three barrels of Athabasca river water to wash away the clay and sand. A Congressional report issued last year wondered if there was enough water to keep the river healthy or "meet future needs of...industry."
Energy consumption in the tar sands is wasteful too since bitumen production requires a lot of energy to create steam. Every day in the tar sands, steam gobbles enough natural gas to warm six million Canadian homes. Natural gas executives say the consumption of a clean fuel to produce oil is like burning all the Picassos in a museum in order to keep the visitors warm.
Global investors, environmental groups and Canadian auditors are asking hard questions about the unconventional water and carbon footprint of bitumen. The US Congress recognizes that environmental liabilities attending Canada's tar sands extraction will curtail excavation of poorer grade deposits in nearby Utah.
In the end, Canada's tar sands don't solve America's critical energy problems or even fund a greener and more independent economy. And now the future of tar sands production rests in the hands of US policy makers and consumers. For Obama the choice should be clear: If America is serious about lessening its deadly dependence on oil, dirty or bloody, then US dollars must buy green energy, locally, and with US technologies. The worst alternative is to get stuck in Canada's sand box.
* Andrew Nikiforuk is a recipient of Canada's highest award for book length non-fiction, the prestigious 'Governor General's Award'.
Download a free .pdf file of Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent at the following link from March 16th-20:
**Read Robert Kunzig's article 'Canadian Oil Sands' in the March, 2009 issue of National Geographic at the following URL: