Tar sands development in Alberta Canada is creating an environmental catastrophe. Toxic tailings ponds can be seen from space and plans have been made to strip away forests and peat lands in an area the size of Florida. The process of extracting oil from tar sands is extremely resource-intensive; it requires large amounts of energy for heating, mining, and pumping and uses 2.5 to 4 times the amount of water required for conventional crude oil extraction. Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are three times those of conventional crude oil. Tar-sand oil contains 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen, and five times more lead than conventional oil. These toxins are released into US air and water when the crude oil is processed into fuels by refineries.
The United States is overwhelmingly the dominant market for tar sands oil. Approximately 96 percent of the oil produced from the tar sands is exported to the U.S. for refining and consumption, and tar sands oil companies hope to increase US demand for this dirty crude to support expanding extraction projects.
Two new oil pipelines transport tar sands crude to new and expanded refineries in the Upper Midwest, and a third pipeline is proposed to reach refineries on the Gulf Coast. Spills and leaks from the pipelines threaten landowners and wildlife in the pipelines’ paths, and refineries processing tar sands crude will spew more toxic air pollutants, contaminating the air of nearby communities. This massive investment in new oil infrastructure will lock the United States and Canada into extracting, transporting, refining, and burning this dirty fuel for years to come, contributing significantly to climate change and prolonging our addition to oil.
Earthjustice challenged one of the major pipeline projects: the Alberta Clipper pipeline, which has the capacity to import 450,000 barrels of tar sand crude oil per day. The US portion of the pipeline runs from the U.S.-Canada border near Neche, North Dakota across northern Minnesota to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin.
A third pipeline called the Keystone XL is now proposed to transport tar sands crude to refineries in the Gulf. The US Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed the project and voiced doubts about it. The State Department is currently reviewing the proposal.
Last Sunday, Dec. 4, the weekly review/opinion section of The New York Times carried a sober and sobering piece by Robert Semple, a Times editorial writer who seldom gets to sign his pieces. He wrote of the climate meetings taking place this week in Durban, South Africa, where no one seems to think much progress will be made.