Sunday, October 31, 2010

Minnesota's Dirty Oil Secret

Think of Canada and images of pristine rivers and vast open spaces may come to mind. But there is another Canada, one that is home to what the Sierra Club has called “the dirtiest oil on Earth.”

And it’s coming to a gas station near you.

Like me, I’d guess most Minnesotans assume the gasoline in our cars comes from the Middle East. Imagine then, my surprise when attending a recent public forum to learn that up to 80 percent of it actually comes from Canada—or more specifically from the boreal Forest of Alberta. This figure appears all the more amazing when it’s estimated that this oil accounts for only about four percent of overall U.S. use.

The oil is known as tar sands and Alberta is home to nearly all Canada’s deposits. After Saudi Arabia, it represents the second largest recoverable oil reserves in the world. But to create one barrel of oil requires mining two tons of soil! This in turn releases three times as much greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil compared to conventional oil.

Tar sands are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen. They are mined for the bitumen, a heavy thick hydrocarbon with the consistency of tar, because it can be converted to oil. But unlike conventional oil, it can’t be pumped out of the ground so instead it must be strip mined.

Strip mining is dirty and destructive. Pristine forest and topsoil must be stripped away and the ground dug up using gigantic diggers and earth moving trucks. Heated water is then used to remove the bitumen from the sand. This water is recycled and is then dumped into toxic lakes called “tailings” ponds. These ponds cover an area of 50 square miles and are so large they are visible from space.

Two years ago 1600 migrating ducks landed in a 5 mile square waste pond; three survived.

And what of the indigenous people who still live off the land? Residents downstream from the largest concentration of strip mining operations report that they can no longer drink the water or eat the fish from the area and they suspect that rare forms of cancer are caused by tar sands pollution.

We hear in the news about hybrid and fully electric cars and of breakthroughs in green technology and I know that our dependence on oil won’t be solved overnight, but why are we searching for ever more remote sources? And proposing to build a new network of pipelines across the United States to carry this oil to market?

If the proposed pipelines are built, tar sands oil will be a major source of gasoline for years to come, and one of our last ecosystems will be further destroyed. Perhaps the solution lies in opposing the construction of pipelines. But change doesn’t happen with one person; it happens when people are moved and motivated by an idea.

Perhaps all this may sound hypocritical because I rely on my car every day, but it has at least opened my eyes to something I see as both destructive and unnecessary. And, at a minimum, it has made me ask what I can do.