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Tar Sands – Progress or Stupidity?

“With just 5% of the world’s population, the United States now burns up to 20.6 million barrels of oil a day, or 25% of the worlds current output.” The insatiable demand for oil means that US ports must accept on supertanker every four hours, just to keep the country running. From America’s perspective, the large reserves bound in tar sands in Alberta are a step toward security against the rising threat of disruption to the US economy from the tenuous supply chain. As a result, every company that has been able to invest in the processes that are required to extract and refine the tar sands understands the literal gold mine of decades of wealth they are sitting on. That  is, assuming that Canada doesn’t get punished for it’s stance on Climate Change.

Despite what you might read on the oil companies websites, there is no green way to extract usable oil from tar sands. Using water from the Mackenzie River (even if they are working at higher rates of recycling) and natural gas, (the cleanest fossil fuel) to run the processes required to turn tar sand (just think about the image that those two words conjure in your mind), into oil, is bordering on criminal. Likewise, the return on energy and resources invested is pathetically low as has been documented by many energy specialists – not just the environmentalist ones! Estimates of EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) for Tar Sands projects hover around 3 barrels of oil for every one consumed to process the tar sands. Water consumption ranges from 2 to 7 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, which makes the tar sands projects combined a bigger consumer of water than the whole City of Calgary. Emissions from the whole operation is greater than those for the whole country of Denmark, 5 million people!

The tar sands represents just about the lowest point in Canada’s history as environmental stewards. The government, from accounts I’ve read, turns a blind eye, or even worse, actively promotes massive projects without a fair review of the consequences. This is not a sustainable project at any level. It is all about money. Leaving massive tailings ponds (that leak, by the way) with the consistency of toothpaste for 10,000 years in it’s wake is negligence not permitted of any other type of mining these days. Syncrude, who is held as a shining example of reclamation spends less than 1% of its budget on reclamation projects, and, I’d assume, a lot more on the PR telling people about their reclamation projects.

[ad#200-left]There is little pressure for the industry to be clean. Water and air stewardship are negligible, and even today, Jim Prentice is quoted as saying that in Canada’s climate policy, there may be emissions breaks for the tar sands.

However you dissect it, climate change is just one of the issues. Peak Oil ranks much higher in the stakes for the lifestyles of most of the world. It may not affect us as a generation, but future generations will not have the easy fuel driven lives we enjoy today. Technology has not provided any feasible alternative to the wholesale replacement of oil. And Peak Oil is not just a “green” thing, it traverses all aspects of life, and begs the question of how er should be using the resources we have available to us. Is it possible that as a western society we have exceeded previous generations imaginable levels of consumption, and that we’ve sown a path of greed and gluttony.

We are truly in the Age of Stupid.

This isn’t about doomsday scenarios – what we see as progress may really just be monuments to our societal stupidity – the Tar Sands projects may well fit into this category in the history books of the future. Strip mining, fragmentation of the boreal forest, emissions, acid rain, water use and polluted rivers, toxic tailing ponds, and massive natural gas consumption uncovers the tar sands project as the true face of the crippling addiction to oil that grips our North American lifestyles.

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

One thought on “Tar Sands – Progress or Stupidity?

  1. I was just reading up about the tar sands and stumbled on this post. Makes a lot of sense. I live in New Delhi, but I think the tar sands affect us all. Oil is bad for the planet; dirty oil is worse!

    I just ran a guest post by a Canadian environmental leader who is working on this issue and others. He says we need a worldwide massive people’s movement to stop climate change. I think he’s right.

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