Is the Truth About Tar Sands Emerging?

“Oil sticks to everything. It collects in eddies and sheltered areas away from the rushing current, and swirls metallic, glinting in the sun. It collects in clumps of dry roots and grasses, like slick, matted hair. Along the river, wild strawberries, clovers, and a cluster of wild roses—Alberta’s official flower— were all painted delicately in oil. I crouched down to touch it with my bare fingers, rubbing the sticky black-brown syrup between two fingers. I couldn’t wipe it off, and my stained hands smelled like tar for a long time after.”

If you’ve been following the news recently, you’ve probably heard about the Keystone XL pipeline (the KXL), and how it is supposed to transport tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the United States. The passage above is from a blog post my friend Kristin Moe wrote about visiting Alberta, Canada, and experiencing an oil spill. I find her writing all the more poignant because the southern half of the KXL was recently approved for construction.

I’ve written a lot about the tar sands, and I was arrested last August during a tar sands protest in front of the White House. However, I became comfortable with my decision to be arrested only after reading pro-tar sands works, such as Ezra Levant’s Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands, in addition to the anti-pipeline articles written by colleagues and friends. In addition to peer-reviewed reports by scientists, I read the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement, and listened to the testimony from the State Department’s public review hearings. The science was clear: extracting the tar sands is destructive and threatens the health and safety of people nearby regardless of the carbon dioxide emissions. The emissions and the greenhouse effect makes the use of the tar sands that much worse.

Imagine, then, my joy when I read a piece published in the Washington Post this past Saturday. The article, written by Steve Mufson, was remarkably unbiased compared to the usual KXL media coverage. (Part of that may be because it was written by Mufson instead of the other WashPost reporter covering the tar sands — Juliet Eilperin — who seems to be skeptical of clean energy in general. Check out her piece in Wired). It was accompanied by some horrifying pictures and personal stories, and some very eye-opening stats.

How eye-opening? A Washington Post poll revealed that in the U.S.,

  • Six out of ten people think the pipeline should be approved;
  • 83% of people think the KXL will create jobs;
  • nearly half do not think it will cause significant damage to the environment.

But the stats about climate change tell a different story.

Mufson’s article includes information about the energy intensive tar sands extraction process. It takes about one barrel of oil to extract four to eight from the tar sands. One analysis shows that making a barrel of oil from the tar sands creates anything from 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average barrel of imported crude. Another reveals that the “well to tank” (gas tank) emissions are twice as high as the “average U.S. crude import.” Plus, the extraction process gets rid of wetlands that naturally store carbon dioxide. Mufson compares it to strip mining, explaining that, “Trees are cut, layers of wetland fen and peat are drained and peeled back, and then the companies dig into a rich layer of oil sands that go down nearly 400 feet.” The pictures accompanying the article show what those words cannot describe.

As I sit in my living room writing this post, I’m reminded that despite my scholarly research, I’m still largely separated from the realities and the action. Not completely: the IPCC has linked extreme weather and climate change, and over my lifetime, I’ve seen the regional weather get steadily less predictable. My house lost power twice in the last week, as a series of storms rolled across the country and battered the D.C. region. We were lucky to escape with no more damage than a couple of dents in one of our cars. And I’ve avoided most of the crazy high temperatures (over 1,000 heat records set!) because I’ve been in buildings with air conditioning.

With climate change, most people will not be so lucky. Here in the U.S., we’re seeing Colorado burning. And in Alberta, people are already suffering the impacts of tar sands extraction, like the oil spill Moe writes about in her blog post above. The Washington Post photos have some good examples of the hardships people are facing in the Athabasca, Alberta region as well.

The Southern half of the KXL may have been approved for construction, but if the warnings from activists are to be heeded, it won’t be easy. Activists in Texas are organizing the tar sands blockade. People have already been arrested in Utah, trying to stop the pipeline construction.

I’m hoping that the U.S. and Canadian governments realize how destructive the tar sands are before anyone takes action. They really only need to look at the photos of Alberta and recent weather reports to see how so.


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