Monday, August 30, 2010

Yet Another Reason to Divorce Your Car

Alberta's Athabasca River runs through what once was a boreal wilderness, but is now the industrialized site of the world's largest energy project: Canada's oil sands, also known as tar sands. Every major oil company has a stake in developing this dirty resource, which involves mining with a complex of roads, pipes, pumps, and horizontal wells; processing with massive amounts of energy and water; and mega-production of waste, including toxic heavy metals funneled into huge, leaky tailings ponds.

Today a team of scientists released findings which confirm that oil sands development sends a raft of priority pollutants -- mercury, nickel, thallium, lead, cadmium, copper, silver and zinc among them -- into the Athabasca River and its tributaries. By discovering many of these contaminants in concentrations higher near the tar sands than farther away, or higher downstream from tar sands mining than upstream, the study shoots holes in government and industry claims that the unhealthy levels of these elements in the Athabasca watershed are natural. It also gives weight to concerns that increased cancer rates in the region might be linked to the very polluting processes involved in extraction of bitumen -- later refined into gasoline and other oil products -- from these sands.

This is important information for every every big user of petroleum, including every U.S. driver. Our thirst for oil and gasoline has used up a huge percentage of the easier, "cleaner" supplies of petroleum feedstocks, diverting us more and more into dirtier and more dangerous sources: deep-water wells, for instance, and so-called "alternatives" like oil shales and sands. Since 2001, writes Andrew Nikiforuk in his award-winning book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Canada's oil sands have made it the single largest exporter of oil to the U.S.

Andrew Nikiforuk explains the destruction of boreal ecosystems by tar sands development to an audience at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin, October 2009.

I met Nikiforuk at last year's annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. He wrote Tar Sands, he said, because he got mad about what the development of these fields was doing to his home, and to his friends. From rare cancers to social degeneracy, extraction of bitumen from tar sands has visited hellish scenarios on the region. Nikiforuk writes:

As a twenty-year resident of Calgary, I have watched the 'human ecosystem wastage' escalate year by year, as hundreds of fortune seekers pour into my city every week. Every day on my way to work I pass another homeless man ruined by crack cocaine or bad bitumen luck .... Panhandlers dot the streets .... Just three blocks from our house in a so-called desirable neighbourhood, a man's arm was found in a Dumpster. Police found the rest of the body somewhere else .... Avarice fills the Calgary air, and most people run like hamsters on a treadmill .... My three sons believe that driving a BMW or a Porsche is normal,because a bitumen boom fills the streets with flashy cars. The traffic is overwhelming .... The [drug] use ... the wife beatings, the road accidents, the destruction of wildlife, the uprooting of familes, the debasement of property rights ... the whole unmitigated frenzy .... Canada ... is in the throes of an addiction.
The book goes on to document the incredible environmental damage visited on northern Alberta by this rush to feed our oil habit. For instance:

The open-pit mining operations look more hellish than an Appalachian coal field. To coax just one barrel of bitumen from the Athabasca sand pudding, companies must mow down hundreds of trees, roll up acres of soil, drain wetlands, dig up four tons of earth to secure two tons of bituminous sand, and then give those two tons a hot wash. The process costs approximately $100,000 per flowing barrel, making bitumen one of the planet's most expensive fossil fuels.

Tar Sands also quotes David Schindler, a prominent water ecologist and one of the authors of today's study, who notes that the industry's increased demands for water have exacerbated climate-change-linked declines in runoff into the Athabasca watershed. Will enough water remain for fish and other wildlife to survive? Good question, especially when they likely also suffer from the higher pollutant concentrations found by the study announced today.

When I bought my copy of Tar Sands from Andrew Nikiforuk last year, he signed it with the inscription: "Another reason to Divorce Your Car!" Today's scientific research yet again confirms that we have good reasons to think twice about driving, and about all our uses of petroleum.

For some images of what tar sands development is doing to the landscape, see for instance these images taken by Lindsay Telfer and posted at the Sierra Club Canada site.