Throughout my travels in Canada, I’ve met many people with differing opinions on the issue of the “Tar sands” or “Oil sands” (I shall use both unambiguously) development. Environmentalists (like myself) and concerned citizens in Canada, as well as the international community, decry that the largest industrial energy project on the face of the planet is destroying future generation’s right to clean soil, water, air, biodiversity and most importantly a stable climate.
As well as strong local economy, the current economic setup of the tar sands’ development is to focus on export to foreign countries, leaving Canada with no energy security and a weak local economy. My opinion on this issue is to stop the further development of the tar sands. I will outline the “true” facts of the tar sands and the negative impacts they will cause. Before I delve into the overwhelming facts against tar sands development, I must first address proponent’s arguments for further development.
Big oil companies that reap such huge benefits from utilizing the tar sands, are also the organizations that argue for its expansion. Huge corporate oil companies influence, and in effect, control to an extent mainstream media and massage many so called “facts” of the tar sands to mask one of the biggest crimes against the future of humanity solely for individual profit. They argue that the economic benefits from the tar sands development far outweigh the long term negative effects on the environment.
For example “the energy sector accounted for about 30 per cent of Alberta’s $290-billion gross domestic product in 2008” as well as “over the next 25 years, oil sands are forecast by the Canadian energy research institute to require more than 450,000 annual work positions across Canada” (“Oil sands economic benefits, UOA”). Northern Alberta, Canada has the third largest proven oil reserve in the world, “Alberta’s remaining proven oil reserves are 171. 8 billion barrels (169. billion barrels in the oil sands), or about 13 per cent of total global oil reserves” (“Oil sands economic benefits, UOA”) which economists argue we must utilize as much as feasibly possible for Canada to play an important role in the international energy market.
They also argue that “The cumulative sum of additional Canadian GDP from 2010 to 2035, as a result of new oil sands projects, is estimated at $2,106 billion” (Economic Impacts of New Oil Sands Projects in Alberta (2010–2035)(CERI)). Their main argument is that expansion of the tar sands is good for the Canadian economy and international prosperity.
But what they “intentionally” forget to mention are the social and environmental impacts which many people believe far outweigh the economic benefits of the largest industrial energy project on the planet. The tar sands’ most understated fact is the true scale of this almost irrevocable industrial operation. “Lying beneath 140,200 square kilometers of northern Alberta forest, an area almost as large as the state of Florida, this area represents 21% of Alberta and 37% of Alberta’s Boreal Forest Natural Region” (A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands pg5).
The scale of which cannot truly be conceived unless viewed from a helicopter. The UN’s senior advisor on water, Maude Barlow, said after touring the Alberta tar sands: “We were devastated by what we saw and smelled and experienced. The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned and giant tailing ponds line the Athabasca River” (Matthew McDermott, Canadian Tar Sands Look like Tolkien’s Mordor Says UN Water Advisor). Where the 140,200 square kilometers of the tar sands are today, Canada’s now greatly diminished boreal forest has flourished in this region for thousands of years.
Wild life such as bears, wolves, lynx, and some of the largest populations of woodland caribou left in the world are all in drastic population decline from thousands of square kilometers of their habitat being destroyed indefinitely for tar sands production. This shocking quote reaffirms this fact, “The projected strip-mining of 740,000 acres of forests and wetlands will result in the loss of breeding habitat for between 480,000 and 3. 6 million adult birds over the next 30-50 years, a corresponding impact on breeding that could mean a loss of 4. million to 36 million young birds over a 20-year period(A Comprehensive Guide to the Alberta Oil Sands pg27) Even though the vast scope of the tar sands is already on such an environmentally unsustainable, monumental scale, further expansion for increased production is expected to triple by 2030 (Comprehensive Guide to The Alberta Oil Sands pg5). One of the most environmentally damaging factors of the tar sands development is the highly unsustainable use of water. According to the University of Alberta… “Huge amounts of water are used in extracting and processing oil sands.
High levels of reuse have been achieved, with more than 90% being recycled in the process, but ultimately only 5-10% is returned to the river the rest being too toxic. The huge volumes involved mean that enormous amounts of wastewater are produced. There is widespread concern over whether there is sufficient water to meet both ecological needs and supply the existing oil sands developments, let alone the proposed expansions. Processing 1 m3of bitumen produces 6 m3 of tailings. Between 2 and 4. 5 barrels of water are used to produce a barrel of synthetic crude oil. The average is 3 barrels of water.
Oil sands water consumption is expected to more than double from 5 to 13 million m3 by 2015. Approved oil sands leases currently have licences to divert 370 million m3 (2. 3 billion barrels) of freshwater a year from the Athabasca river. Planned expansions would increase this to 529 million m3 (3. 3 billion barrels) a year, equivalent to 15. 7% of current low flows. The Athabasca River is a primary source of water for many of the Athabasca oil sands operations. The disturbance of the Athabasca wetland catchment by oil sands is also reducing the amount of runoff and groundwater reaching the river.
As a result there is less water in the river, while abstraction is increasing. The average summer flow in the Athabasca declined by 29% between 1970 and 2005. In low flow seasons, there are concerns that the river is reaching levels below that needed to maintain its ecological functions. In particular the river suffers from low oxygenation in the winter and is at risk of temperatures lethal to fish during the summer, according to the University of Alberta. ” (Unconventional Oil Scraping the bottom of the barrel? g27) What this means is that industrial freshwater consumption for tar sands production is highly unsustainable and is destined to inevitably collapse.
This will happen even sooner if expansion is put through, with disastrous effects to the ecology of Northern Alberta and the Canadian economy. The most environmentally damaging aspect of the tar sands development is undoubtedly climate change, With the large scale removal of Boreal forest, it not only releases thousands of tons of stored carbon but also eliminates the ability of the boreal forest to sequester carbon in the atmosphere. The boreal forest is the single largest terrestrial carbon storehouse in the world, and deforestation has been identified by the IPCC as a major contributor to climate change (“Unconventional Oil pg24) with the proposed plans to expand tar sands production, this cycle of continued growing greenhouse gas emissions rings a death bell for the climatic stability of the entire planet.
“It is estimated that the exploitation of US shale oil and Canadian oil sand deposits would result in well-to-wheel emissions of 980 GtCO2, leading to an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels of between 49 and 65ppm. (Unconventional Oil pg41). This would greatly contribute to exacerbating climate change which causes a multitude of environmental disasters. Most pressingly glacial melt which will in turn cause sea level rise, causing millions of people around the world to become climate refugees, “Climate refugee is a term used to describe a person forced to flee their homeland because of the impact of climate change primarily rising sea levels. Experts suggest rising global temperatures could result in more than 100 million climate refugees by 2100” (Future flood of ‘climate refugees’ ahead? Vancouver sun).