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.


Anonymous said...

Get real buddy, America needs oil and we have to take it off those i - rakees then lets av it. USA USA USA

Ed said...

We should be concentrating on solar power that is the future boyo.

Anonymous said...

Short answer. that's progress. Long answer, this is a complicated situaation where one side will tell you their facts, and the other side will counter with theirs. Eventually, both sides make a living off the tar sands, and the people living there usually are left behind with the least amount gained. Fortunately, it sounds like not too many people live nearby.

In comparison,just look at how Minnesota has been treated over the last hundred years or so. First the timber was stripped from the land with no regard for any conservation whatsoever, and then the ground was strip mined and shaft mined for some of the purest iron ore known on earth. Yet, somehow today northern Minnesota is still known as a beautiful area, and the abandoned mines are looked at as tourism landmarks.

That doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of pain and waste left in the region after the European and Eastern U.S. owners of these industries left with the government's blessing. Those companies had what they wanted and eventually did their accounting tricks in order to leave the workers behind with one tenth of the pension and ten times the health care bills they expected.

Did you know that whole towns in Minnesota were moved just because a company wanted the ore that was below the town? This was all done with the government's blessing because it brought in big money in taxes.

Don't be so sure that the tar sand pollution problem can be directly linked to illness. If it could there would be thousands of lawyers starting class action lawsuits. Just remember, there is a woman in California trying to start a class action lawsuit against Target right now because she was shortchanged on some coupons she used.

I guess that is progress too. Doesn't it seem that the pendulum goes too far one way and then too far the other? The people in the middle are the ones that always seem to get hit in the back of the head when the pendulum goes by.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing complicated about this situation. It's simple. Many are so desperately attached to glamorized perceptions of what they consider to be necessary for living a satisfying life that they are fine with destructive processes that will in short time eliminated any chance for future generations to survive on these lands. I am referring to our childrens children. FACT: Your brain is about 70%WATER.

Anonymous said...

The tar sands aren't the only impact, once it is extracted you have to transport it. And when there are pipes there are too often spills: