Tar Sands: Signature of the Oil Junkies

by Bruce Johansen

By the time this column reaches print, our newly Republican Senate and more-Republican House of Representatives will be convening in Washington, D.C., and doubtless making a political object of pressuring President Barack Obama to sign off on the Keystone XL Pipeline. This political pantomime has by now become well rehearsed: friends of the Earth versus the Oil Junkies.

The major reservation about the Keystone XL in our area is classic NIMBY (‘Not in My Backyard’). Farmers don’t want their water polluted by errant oil. This much is true, but Keystone is important for other reasons as well. It is part of an attitude that favors continued (and accelerating) exploitation of fossil fuels in every form possible—and their greenhouse-gas emissions, without regard for our climatic future. It also favors turning increasing stretches of Alberta, including several indigenous homelands, into wastelands so that fossil-fuel corporations can manufacture combustible products and turn out waste carbon dioxide. By 2013, one-third of Alberta’s economy was tied in some way to the tar sands, including royalties worth more than $4 billion during its 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Native peoples in Alberta have found some of their lands devastated by tar sands mining to the point that they have been compared to a moonscape. Native peoples in the United States also have taken a leading role in opposing the Keystone XL, which is being proposed to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast for refining. Trucks carrying equipment to the tar sands fields have been blocked, and several arrests have taken place on Nez Perce land in Idaho and the Lakotas’ Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

“For a vast stretch of western Canada’s boreal forest, the fight over extracting bitumen has already been lost. The question is, how much more will we lose?” wrote Andrew Nikiforuk, (a Canadian journalist and author of The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude) in the New York Times. After intensive tar sands mining accelerated after 2000, almost 2 million acres of this forest have been cleared or degraded, according to Global Forest Watch.

A Treeless Wasteland

After the forests have been removed, the landscape is reduced to a treeless wasteland. The bitumen harvest begins with drilling deep into frozen ground that is melted with water that has been heated to steam, after which it is pumped to the surface. Some of the bitumen that the Cree once heated to repair leaks in their canoes lies near the surface, from which it is removed by electric shovels the size of large buildings, then transported to mills that remove the sands in trucks that carry 400 tons at a time. Imagine their gas mileage. The toxic sludge that comes out of the mills is dumped into lakes. As Nikiforuk wrote: “Along the Athabasca River, more than a dozen of these enormous waste ponds hold back this industrial excrement. Pollutants in these lakes are leaking into groundwater and the Athabasca River… Come the spring melt, these pollutants rush into the Athabasca River. A growing ring of mercury contamination surrounds the project.”

While Canadian law requires reclamation of this land, Nikiforuk wrote that “The reclamation of these blown-up forests remains a nightmarish challenge. Nobody really knows how to put a boreal forest back together once it has been stripped of its trees, soil, wetlands and fish-bearing rivers. More than half of these devastated forests contained peat lands. Those landscapes took thousands of years to form. They also fed caribou, stored carbon, recharged groundwater, protected biological diversity and acted as protection against floods. The miners plan to substitute forest lowlands with artificial hills constructed of sand and petroleum coke. The hills will be topped with a salt-tolerant plantation forest. Mining pits filled with toxic waste and topped with freshwater will pass as wetlands. The industry has called this crude terraforming a ‘sustainable landscape that is equal to or better than how we found it.’”

“The Complete Eradication of an Ecosystem”

British Columbia photographer Garth Lenz said “I’d heard about the tar sands but I hadn’t been, so I went there and spent a couple of days and was pretty much flabbergasted by the scale of the devastation and the impacts. I had photographed industrial devastation all over, including some of the most massive clear-cuts on the planet, right in British Columbia and in Chile and Patagonia, so I’d seen that massive industrialization of the landscape on a huge, huge scale,” he said. “But I was completely unprepared for what I found. Because this is just completely off-the-grid crazy—the scale is unbelievable.”

Lenz pointed out that tar sands development harms fish and caribou upon which indigenous peoples rely. “It’s the complete eradication of an ecosystem,” Lenz said. “I mean, the forest is clear-cut, the wetlands are drained and dredged, the soil is dug up, replaced by massive mines and toxic ponds which you can see from outer space.” Chief Bill Erasmus of the Yellowknife Northwest Territories in northern Canada said that “Our people, in some areas, can no longer eat the fish… Our people can no longer drink the water. Water levels are decreasing. Where I’m from, it’s never been like that before.”

Bruce E. Johansen is Jacob J. Isaacson Professor at the UNO and author of The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology (2009).

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