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Energy Is Ugly: Tar Sands Edition

Oil imported from Canada's tar sands has twice the environmental cost of normal crude. Did we mention that they're our biggest supplier?

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 2:56 PM EDT
Pipeline construction on a line running from Edmonton to the oil sands near Grassland, Alberta.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

For years, "not in my backyard" has been the battle cry of residents in Cape Cod who stand opposed to an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The giant turbines will forever mar the beauty of the landscape, they say.

Energy is ugly. Some forms more so than others, as nuclear near-meltdowns in Japan, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and deaths in a West Virginia Coal Mine explosion have driven home in the last year. Energy kills plants, plankton, and people. It imperils the environment, poisons the oceans, and is threatening to turn part of Japan, one of the most advanced nations on the planet, into a contaminated zone for decades to come.

David Daniel knows this all too well. He built his dream home on 20 acres of lush wilderness, alive with panthers, wild boar, and deer, in Winnsboro, East Texas. Then a nightmare called tar sands appeared on his doorstep.

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Tar sands are sandy soils laden with a tar-like substance called bitumen. Getting oil out of them is a dirty, dangerous, and deadly process. Daniel knew none of this when a neighbor phoned in the fall of 2008 to say that he'd seen trespassers on the property. "I went back [from work] and I found survey stakes that cut my property in half," he recalls. Several months later, an eminent domain letter arrived, telling him that a pipeline carrying oil from Canada's "oil sands" would cut through his pristine property. When he complained to TransCanada, the company in charge, its lawyer responded with a veiled threat: "Should I put the letter in the ‘cooperative' or the ‘uncooperative pile?'"

So began the Daniel family's struggles with TransCanada, whose powerful US backers include Koch Industries (best known for its stealth attacks on the federal government, and big spending on climate-change-denial campaigns). By the time TransCanada's surveyors entered the Daniels' lives, the corporation was already hard at work pushing a pipeline that would run from the Canadian border to Texas's Gulf Coast, along the way slicing through the Daniels' land and the properties of countless other Americans.

At no time did TransCanada's representatives volunteer information about tar sands, leaving Daniel to do his own research. When he asked how tar sands oil would affect the pipeline, TransCanada responded only that the effects would be determined after the pipeline was put in place. "They made us feel like lab rats on our own property," he says.

Behind his painful schooling in corporate arrogance lies a startling fact: Canada is the leading oil-supplier of the United States. Let me repeat that: the US imports more oil from Canada than (yes) Mexico, which ranks second, and (believe it or not) Saudi Arabia, which ranks only third. Tar sands are largely responsible for Canada's new petro-status. Nearly a million barrels of tar sands oil arrive in the US every day. By 2025, Canada is expected to be producing 3.5 million barrels of tar sands oil daily. Most of that, says Ryan Salmon of the National Wildlife Federation, will be imported to the US And believe me, when it comes to energy ugly, tar sands could take the cake.

Not Tar, Not Oil

In fact, "tar sands" is a colloquialism for 54,000 square miles of bitumen that veins sand and clay beneath the boreal forests of Alberta, one of Canada's western provinces. Black as it is, bitumen isn't actually tar, though it looks and smells like tar, and has its consistency on a very cold day—hence, that term "tar sands." (The corporations that produce the stuff prefer "oil sands.")

Unlike oil, bitumen does not flow. Gouged and steamed out from under the forest, it is wrenched from the soil, barreled, and then refined into synthetic crude oil—at shattering environmental costs. The tar sands industry has ravaged Alberta's forests, poisoned its air and water, and wrecked the livelihoods of its indigenous peoples. Moreover, producing synthetic crude from a barrel of bitumen generates at least twice as much greenhouse gas as producing a barrel of normal crude oil. At 1.5 million barrels of tar sands oil a day, that's a lot of global warming.

But for corporations intent on profits in a world rocked by Middle East and North African uprisings that might threaten global oil supplies, and by declining reserves of normal crude, environmental catastrophe is trivial collateral damage. The tar sands' great selling point in the US is that it comes from a friendly neighbor. Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, typically touts tar sands as improving "US energy security and reduc[ing] dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East and Venezuela," At a White House meeting in early February, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured President Obama that "Canada is the largest, the most secure, the most stable, and the friendliest supplier of that most vital of all America's purchases: energy."

A complex alchemy turns bitumen into synthetic crude. Canadian journalist and tar sands expert Andrew Nikiforuk calls this final product "the world's dirtiest hydrocarbon oil." Canada used to transform bitumen from its rawest into its ultimate form, sending synthetic crude through pipelines to the US. Now, however, with Canada's refineries maxing out, US refineries are increasingly taking up the task of turning bitumen into the mock crude that makes even my Prius environmentally unfriendly. That means what's coming to Americans in ever increasing quantities is a very raw form of diluted bitumen called DilBit, whose transport will make lab rats of us all.

Under jaunty names like "Lakehead," "Alberta Clipper," and "Keystone," a vast pipeline network is already pumping this diluted bitumen to the Midwest and into the American heartland. The 1,900-mile-long Lakehead pipeline, owned by Canada's Enbridge Inc., skirts one of the world's largest stretches of fresh water, the Great Lakes.

Last June, Enbridge's main competitor, TransCanada, opened a $5 billion, 2,147-mile pipeline it dubbed Keystone I, which plunges from Canada straight through the eastern parts of the Dakotas and Kansas to the Gulf Coast. Now, TransCanada is pushing hard for an extension, the Keystone XL, the one that will run through David Daniel's land on its way to the Gulf coast.

In February, 2011, a landmark report by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted that diluted bitumen is "the primary product" carried by the Keystone I. The proposed Keystone XL, write the report's authors, will be dedicated only to DilBit whose "combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration." So imagine this recipe for pipelines from hell: take thick, raw, corrosive, acid-ridden bitumen and add volatile natural gas to propel it since the bitumen doesn't flow by itself; next, crank up the temperatures and pressures far higher than those needed to move ordinary crude oil (again, to help the stuff on its way). It doesnʼt take a rocket scientist to understand some of the possible dangers of moving tar sands oil in this state through our communities.

The Tar Sands Come to Kellogg's

Last July, as BP's catastrophe in the Gulf was making news around the clock, the US experienced its first big DilBit moment. Part of Enbridge's Lakehead line broke, oozing black gunk into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, Michigan, iconic home to cereal-maker Kellogg's. Twelve hours passed before workers responded to the surge of sludge, which by then had passed from the tributary into the river itself. The dark slop could be seen from bank to bank in the Kalamazoo, making its way to Lake Michigan.

High levels of benzene filled the air and local residents had to be evacuated from their homes. When the sludge passed through Battle Creek, the Kellogg's factory even stopped making cornflakes. The spill was arrested before it could reach Lake Michigan, but not before a million gallons of DilBit had fouled a 30-mile-long stretch of the Kalamazoo, one of the biggest spills in Midwest history.

This was, however, no "ordinary" oil spill, as DilBit spills are much harder to clean up. Once DilBit hits water, the bitumen in it doesn't float; it quickly sinks into river sediment. Exposed to sunlight, it forms a dense, sticky substance hard to remove from rock and soil.

Special dredging and other equipment is needed for any effective cleanup. The booms you saw skimming the Gulf last summer are inadequate, and the US doesn't yet have DilBit cleanup technology. So while cleanup crews worked on the Kalamazoo and its banks after the spill was discovered, they left a whole lot of DilBit behind. Adequate cleanup isn't expected until at least late 2011, according to the NRDC's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz.

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