Oh, Canada…

From: Emily Bowie ’14
Published: May 1, 2011

We are addicted to energy. How far are we going to go to make sure that we have access to it? We hear a lot about energy issues in Saudi Arabia and about the horrid process of fracking that is used to access natural gas. The question I found myself asking was, can it get worse? The answer? Yes, it can. Have you heard of the Tar Sands? The extraction and refining of the tar sands is the most energy-intensive and polluting form of gas extraction we have invented.  The United States receives 20% of it’s oil from Canada and a significant amount of this comes from the tar sands in Alberta‘s Athabasca Valley.

Alberta holds six tar sand mines that together produced three quarters of a million barrels of synthetic crude oil a day. In order to extract the oil from the valley the forest is cut down and two tons of peat and dirt are removed for every barrel of oil. The machines used to remove this earth have steel teeth that each weigh one ton… per tooth.  Underneath this dirt is the sand itself. These sands are extremely valuable: two tons of sand yields one barrel of oil. The dump trucks that haul this sand around carry 400 tons with every load and burn 50 gallons of diesel fuel an hour.

The process of refining the sand takes a stupendous amount of energy. The sand is sent to rock crushers and is mixed with water that is heated to 175 F to strip the bitumen from the sand, and then again to 900 F to upgrade it. This process of “clawing and cooking” a barrel of oil from the sands emits three times as much carbon dioxide than a barrel taken from Saudi Arabia. Additionally, hazardous air pollutants are released, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and formaldehyde, which all put nearby residents and employees at risk.  The energy used in this process comes from natural gas. The oil from the sands contains about five times as much energy as the natural gas that was used in its production, and exists in a more useful form, making this energy chain economically viable for the companies.

Once the water used in heating (200,000 tons a day) has been utilized and contaminated it is pumped into collection ponds; these ponds covers 65 square miles. In 2008 more than 1600 ducks landed in one of these waste ponds and died from toxic exposure. Unfortunately, this water contains as many as 13 priority pollutants under the U.S Clean Water Act, including lead, mercury, and arsenic. This contaminated water is sometimes returned to the Athabasca River.  As a result, a community downstream of the project,  Fort Chipewya, has been experiencing unusually high rates of cancer.

Alberta estimates that their three oil sand deposits hold 173 billion barrels of “easily” recoverable oil, an astonishing amount. These reserves place Canada second behind Saudi Arabia in oil production. However, the total land area that would need to be removed to uncover this oil is the size of North Carolina and the process of extraction used to obtain these reserves releases 15 to 40% more greenhouse emissions per barrel than conventional oil production.

TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline company, has recently proposed a 1,700-mile pipeline from the Alberta tar sands, over the Great Plains to refineries in Texas. An estimated 900,000 barrels of future oil will flow through these pipelines each day. The company hopes to have this pipeline functioning by 2012.



Pipeline accidents in the United States between 2000 and 2009 were responsible for 2,794 incidents and 161 fatalities. Because the tar sands being sent to Texas are not fully refined they are up to sixteen times more corrosive than regular dirty oil. TransCanada’s recently completed Keystone pipeline leaked three times in South Dakota within the first few months of operation. The biggest problem with this pipeline is its location. The company wants to build the pipeline over and in the Ogallala Aquifer, an aquifer that is the source of drinking water for millions and is used for 30% of the nations irrigation water. This is irrigation water fuels the food production in the Midwest that our country relies so heavily on. The heightened potential for leaks over such a valuable resource makes the Keystone XL pipeline a terrifying prospect.

Economically, the tar sands do make sense. 173 billion barrels is a lot of oil, enough oil to free the United States from Saudi Arabia. But at what cost…

A hole in the earth the size of North Carolina?
Triple the amount of CO2 emissions?
Machinery that burns 50 gallons of fuel an hour?
The possibility of polluting a third of our agricultural production?

Can we really look ourselves in the mirror if we go through with this? Can we afford this? The tar sands need to be our wake-up call. When we start removing four tons of dirt for every barrel of oil, we know that we are running short, and we might as well start looking for alternatives sooner rather than later; that way we can spare the earth from this wound we have begun to inflict.

Sources of Information:

– http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text/1

– http://www.good.is/post/map-see-where-the-proposed-keystone-xl-pipeline-would-funnel-filthy-tar-sands/

– http://www.nrdc.org/land/files/TarSandsPipeline4pgr.pdf