Northern Exposure – shining a light on Canadas dirty tar sands oil

Stephen Smith | January 25, 2011 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy

oilimportsThere is little question that America remains addicted to oil just as we were five years ago when then President George W. Bush famously included that statement in his 2006 State of the Union address. While this chart shows the temporary drop in oil imports largely attributable to the recession, America still continues to import an unbelievable 11,000,000 barrels of oil per day.

There has been considerable focus on where this oil comes from (and hence, where our money goes to) given that the majority of the countries supplying our oil are known for human-rights violations, instability and civil strife, undemocratic regimes or purported links to terrorists. As a result, some have pointed to our stable, democratic neighbor to the north as an ideal energy supplier. However, the dark side of Canada’s dirty oil production is finally coming to light, and it is clear that the unconventional oil from tar sands is not only risky and polluting, but the wrong direction when alternatives such as better fuel efficiency and sustainable biofuels produced here in the Southeast are viable options.

Vast stretches of Canada’s boreal forests cover a mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen – a heavy, black viscous oil. To even access these deposits, the forest must first be drained of its water, and then clear cut of all its trees. Because the oil is thoroughly mixed with other elements, the tar sands (euphemistically called ‘oil sands’) must be mined, extracted, separated and ‘upgraded’ in an energy-intensive and water-hungry process in order to develop a usable crude oil.  There are myriad reasons why tar sands are unsustainable from the destruction of a vital and vibrant forest and wetland ecosystem to the overuse of valuable fresh water resources; from the health and cultural impacts on indigenous communities to the increase of greenhouse gases and other pollutants both in Canada and downstream in the U.S.

tarsandsNational Geographic rightly characterized the tar sands disaster as ‘scraping bottom’ noting it has only become economically viable because of high global oil prices.  I have seen only pictures such as these of the oil sands, but a friend who has witnessed the destruction first-hand describes it as “looking out over Mordor,” a reference to the sinister part of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings.

The environmental destruction aside, the use of tar sands by the U.S. government is technically against the law.  Our organization, along with the Sierra Club, filed suit in 2010 against the U.S. Department of Defense for violating Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 which prohibits federal use of fuels that have a higher greenhouse gas life cycle than conventional petroleum. This law hasn’t stopped Canada’s tar sands from becoming our largest single source of imported crude oil, and we import approximately 2/3 of Canada’s nearly 1.5 million barrels/day. The U.S. Department of State is considering a permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline to cross into the U.S. despite the objections from some members of Congress as well as some of the general public.  If permitted, this pipeline would increase tar sands importation as well as refinery expansion and the accompanying health impacts here in the U.S.

Even if the tar sands were problem free, they still would not be a solution to our long-term energy needs. At some point, when all of the boreal forests are mined and destroyed, we would still require new energy sources to power our transportation networks. Real solutions will come from a combination of options: increasing fuel economy even more than Congress did in 2007 and  President Obama did in April 2010, increasing the deployment of electric vehicles powered by renewable sources, growing our network of mass transit, light rail and high-speed rail, accelerating research to generate sustainably produced biofuels here in the Southeast, and incentivizing private sector development of clean alternatives through a carbon pricing system.

bettingoncleanenergyAnd so I come full circle back to presidential speeches and the State of the Union address. On a visit to North Carolina last month, President Obama warned there is a danger of “America falling behind.” While he wasn’t speaking solely about our lack of leadership in the clean energy economy, there is ample evidence we are falling behind China, India and other nations in that regard.

As we await President Obama’s second State of the Union address tonight, many expect him to focus on growing jobs and increasing our competitiveness in the global market.  I remain hopeful that the President will speak directly about the myriad home-grown, clean energy options our nation can and must harness to accomplish these goals.  Lending support for Canada’s tar sands or ‘clean coal’ projects here at home simply prolongs our dependence on the dirtiest energy sources on the planet.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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