The True Cost of Tar Sands Oil / Keystone XL Pipeline

On Monday night I watched the documentary “White Water Black Gold” which screened at my local library, and learned a great deal about the controversial tar sands oil extraction sites in Alberta Canada, which have become the largest source of oil for the U.S.

I also learned about another Alberta tar sands doc, and this one can be viewed online.  If you don’t know where you stand on the related Keystone XL Pipeline debate, or even if you think you do– watch “To The Last Drop,”  an important documentary by Al Jazeera.

“To The Last Drop” part 1

“To The Last Drop” part 2

The expansion of tar sands production is a sign of Peak Oil.  Oil prices had to be driven up enough by dwindling world supplies to make the arduous process of extracting oil (in the form of bitumen) from sand competitive on the global market.  Steam is used in the extraction process. Vast quantities of water are drawn from Canada’s largest freshwater aquifer, threatening the longevity of a crucial North American water supply.  Large amounts of natural gas are used to heat the water, meaning that every barrel of tar sands oil creates 3x the carbon emissions of oil from Texas or Saudi Arabia.

But all of this pales in comparison to the gigantic cesspools left behind in the process.  Every barrel of Tar Sands Oil creates a barrel and a half of toxic waste that is collected into tailings ponds.  It is an oily black cocktail of concentrated mercury, arsenic and other deadly and highly carcinogenic chemicals.

The tailings ponds stretch on over a construction zone larger than the size of Greece. Usually out of sight and out of mind, they drew world attention in 2008 when 1600 migrating ducks fatally mistook Syncrude’s tailings ponds for freshwater. Syncrude agreed to pay a 3 million dollar penalty (about a half a day’s profit) in 2010, and just hours later 230 more birds landed in the toxic brew and had to be euthanized.

These cesspools rest in unlined sand, and the majority are leaking into groundwater and the Athabasca River.  Rob Renner, the Minister of the Environment in Alberta controls the program to monitor water pollution in the tar sands, but the results are confidential.  The oil companies pay for the testing and own the data.  The public hears only that water quality in the Athabasca River is “unchanged.”

But these chemicals are toxic at parts per trillion.  Downstream the fish are deformed with humpbacks or cheeks that are eaten away as if by acid. They are unsafe to eat;  the community has lost their traditional food source.  An estimated 80-90% of the fish exposed to these chemicals die before hatching. Young people and old are developing brain tumors, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia and rare cancers at an alarming rate.

deformed fish are a familiar sight in Lake Athabasca

Concerned by mounting deaths and health problems of Fort Chipewyan (downstream from the tar sands), local doctor John O’Connor recommended a baseline health study be conducted.  A group of Physicians from Health Canada arrived, one marched over to a faucet, filled a mug, took a drink, and declared there was nothing wrong with the water in Fort Chipewyan.  An investigation instead was launched against the local doctor for “raising undue alarm” among other allegations, and he was driven from his practice.

Oh, Canada.

The exceedingly toxic and carbon spewing yet fantastically lucrative tar sands oil operations have turned the Canadian government into the world’s largest scale environmental obstructionist.

“Canada has, in the run up to Copenhagen (Climate Conference), done a great deal to sabotage the efforts of the other nations.  It did more damage than any other nation on earth.  It seems so strange to think what is the biggest threat to a good global deal at the moment?–it’s not Saudi Arabia, it’s not the U.S., it’s not even China.  Canada!  How could it be Canada?”–George Monbiot, Columnist, The Guardian

In Kyoto Canada agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6%.  Twenty years later with the explosion in tar sands production, their emissions are up by 26%.

“Copenhagen is a very good example of why you can’t treat climate change like all the other political issues we face.  Normally we move slowly, and that makes sense.  In this case, that doesn’t work so well.  Because your opponent is not the Republicans, it’s not the Chinese.  Your opponent is physics.  And physics isn’t going to slowly change it’s mind.  And its making its presence felt.  The arctic is melting. Drought and flood are spreading relentlessly.  The world is shifting in the most profound ways we’ve ever seen.  Political reality is very powerful, but it’s trumped by scientific reality.” –Bill McKibben, author, educator, environmentalist.

Canada Tar Sands are the largest known oil reserves in the world, and it is what is considered “dirty oil.”  A consensus among scientists has identified 350 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere to be the level we need to return to in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.  We are currently at 392 ppm.  If we replace waning oil supplies with dirty oil at increasing rates there is little hope for us keeping carbon levels stable, much less decreasing them.  If we can’t decrease carbon levels by at least 10%, catastrophic climate change will occur within our children’s lifetimes.

The Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to Texas is a multi-billion dollar project that will “cement the hold of Canada’s dirty oil on the U.S. Market for a generation to come.”  The 2000 mile long pipeline would pass over Ogallala (Great Plains) Aquifer which provides 30% of the water for our nations irrigated crops, and drinking water for a large swathe of the Midwest.  A spill there would be disastrous to our food and water supply.

Canadian officials claimed building the pipeline would generate 20,000 jobs, but later conceded it was an inflated estimate. The Washington Post came out with an updated statistic that puts it closer to 6500 short term jobs that might be filled by Americans.  The materials used to build the pipeline would be from a Russian owned factory operated in Canada.

Some view the pipeline as ensuring a stable source of oil for the U.S. but it could as likely be de-stabilizing.  The crude currently goes to Midwestern refineries, where it is used domestically.  80% of Minnesota’s oil comes from the tar sands.  Gulf Coast refineries however are export-oriented, and the great potential for export could result in higher oil prices within the U.S.

Over the weekend, 10,000 protestors circled the White House in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Obama’s decision to go forward or not will be made as soon as the end of 2011.  If Obama refuses a permit for the pipeline, Canada plans to build it instead to the west coast, where the oil will be shipped to China; so it’s hard to foresee a sweet victory for environmentalists.

Lake Athabasca/Fort Chipewyan Aerial. Photo by Ryan Jackson for Edmonton Journal

Yet a decision to go forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline seems a true defeat of hope for our future, and to a more alarming degree; our children’s future.   Undoubtedly it would be a great challenge to live without oil, and there’s no single replacement for its mighty concentration of energy.  Releasing oil’s grip on our economy will require a combination of aggressive conservation (remember when oil prices spiked and everyone started riding bikes?), increased use of wind turbines and solar panels; and the harnessing of our brightest scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and policy makers to create new technologies, jobs and infrastructures to meet our national energy demands the smart way.

It would be a great challenge to live without oil, but we need to remember that it’s impossible to live without water.  A shrinking water fresh water supply and increasing desertification are two effects of climate change.  Tar sands oil not only accelerates climate change, it uses enormous quantities of water in the extraction process and pollutes groundwater and rivers with its byproducts.  As we navigate our hectic modern lives we need to keep sight of our most fundamental priorities.  Most of us are willing to make sacrifices, and would trade quite a lot of conveniences and wasteful habits to safeguard a habitable climate, freshwater, and arable land for our children.  Let’s do all we can to secure these necessities.

We can choose not to use Canada’s dirty oil.  Oil is a finite resource, and what’s left in the world is getting more and more expensive and dangerous to extract.   We ultimately need to gain energy independence by developing alternative energy sources, and we are far better off if we make this change long before every drop of dirty oil is burned.  If we wait until afterward, science indicates that ecologically, we simply will not have the chance.  If you oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline’s commitment to running our economy on dirty oil, spread the word, and let the White House know.  (See contacts below)

And there is one other thing each and every one of us can do:


Drive a small car.  Check your tire pressure.  Drive less. Or don’t drive at all!  Carpool.  Walk.  Bike.  Bus.  Support gasoline taxes.  Live near your work.  Fly less.  Buy local foods.  Buy organic foods.  Plant a vegetable garden.  Compost.  Use a push mower.  Or plant “no-mow” grass.  Work from home.  Eat less meat.  Try local beer instead of imported.  Don’t drink bottled water.  Avoid shipping heavy things long distances.  Any of these actions helps conserve oil.

Thanks for reading the Wednesday Post.

Sunset on Cedar Lake in my hometown, Minneapolis, MN


White House

State Department

Senator Amy Klobuchar

Senator Al Franken



“To The Last Drop” Documentary, Al Jazeera

“White Water Black Gold” Documentary

8 responses to “The True Cost of Tar Sands Oil / Keystone XL Pipeline

  1. Your lake image is not that of Lake Athabasca. There are no mountains of that size anywhere near Lake Athabasca. Glaring errors such as this one call into question the rest of your writing and damage the efforts of other, more careful environmental reporters.

  2. Greetings… Found your blog looking for tar sand images. The thing that people are completely clueless about is the fact that the Chinese control the Tar Sand and the Keystone XL Pipeline to Houston has one goal… Get the Chinese Controlled Tar Sands to the Gulf to load onto Chinese Oil Tankers. The widening of the Panama Canal will be done in 2015 allowing larger class tankers through the Canal. Additionally there is a Chinese Billionaire who is going to fund a new, even larger Canal through Nicaragua. People are deluding themselves if they think the Keystone XL Pipeline is for the benefit of the USA.


  3. Great article! I too write a blog for our local newspaper and use wordpress. (Cosmic Charley) I was doing some research on a blog about the tar sands and my son sent me your article. I knew the tar sands were a mess but I was not aware to the extent of the damage, I think my article will be more about the Canadians and how they have sold their first born to the oil companies. I always held the Canadians a little higher on the ethics scale but all things change when it comes to money…
    keep up the good work!

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