The Alberta tar sands are situated in Northern Canada beneath an area of the Boreal forest and wetlands region approximately the size of Florida. This region provides habitat for caribou, lynx, bears, and millions of migratory birds for which the forest serves as a critical nesting ground. It is also the home of many indigenous First Nation communities, who have lived and hunted in this region for thousands of years.
Tar sands oil companies are scraping up hundreds of thousands of acres of this wildlife haven to mine and drill tar sands.
Alberta tar sands oil does not flow freely from the ground like the gushers portrayed in the movies. In its raw form, tar sands oil has been described as dirt that smells like diesel; it is extracted either by open-pit mining, which razes thousands of acres of forestland, or in-situ drilling, which fragments huge swaths of the boreal forest and uses even more energy than mining. Both methods are water- and energy-intensive, with in-situ drilling being approximately 2.5 times more greenhouse gas-intensive than open-pit mining.
Tar sands mining to date has produced more than 65 square miles of toxic waste lakes in Alberta, which serve as death traps for migratory birds and which leach into the Athabasca river and watershed, threatening communities downstream. Spiked rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism have been reported by indigenous communities living downstream of these toxic tailing ponds.
The tar sands oil that flows through pipelines is not the same as conventional oil. Because tar sands, or bitumen, is nearly solid at room temperature, it is mixed with diluents or natural gas liquids and other volatile petroleum products to create diluted bitumen.
Many of these diluents are neurotoxins such as benzene, n-hexane, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which adversely affect the human central nervous system. Even after diluted bitumen is blended into a product called Dilbit, it remains viscous and can only be transported under high pressure and at high temperatures. Dilbit traveling through pipelines has been likened to liquid sandpaper, which can grind and burn its way through a pipe, increasing the likelihood that weakened pipelines will rupture. Many of the pipelines that transport Dilbit are decades old and were never designed to carry this highly corrosive mix.
On July 25, 2010, an Enbridge tar sands pipeline near Marshall, Michigan, burst open, spewing more than one million gallons of diluted bitumen from a large gash in a black pipe. As of spring 2012, the cleanup is still underway, at a cost of $725 million. (Between 1999 and 2010, Enbridge had 804 spills, releasing 6.8 million gallons of hydrocarbons. This is a spill rate of almost 1.5 spills per week.)
After being transported via pipeline, the diluted bitumen must be upgraded and refined, further elevating levels of air and water pollution, smog, greenhouse gas emissions, and severe public health problems such as cancer, asthma and emphysema – in regions often already subject to high levels of pollution.
At a time when we must embrace a clean energy future, tar sands oil takes us in the wrong direction. The United States and Canada should instead implement a comprehensive oil savings plan and reduce oil consumption by increasing fuel efficiency standards and encouraging the development of hybrid cars, renewable energy, environmentally sustainable biofuels, and smart growth to meet our transportation needs.