Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

ALABAMA VOICES: Drilling not answer

ALABAMA VOICES: Drilling not answer
August 31, 2008

First of two parts
By John Ackerman

Over the past few months there has been a great deal written about our dependency on fossil fuels and an alternative to this dilemma called "drill here, drill now, pay less" was offered.

During the debate over this dilemma, some very salient points have been left out by one side or the other. Some overlooked issues include the environmental/human rights records of the multinational oil companies, the accessibility and quality of the remaining oil and natural gas, and why we may not want to drill at all.

All of the above will be discussed in this column. A second column will examine potential alternatives to "drill here, drill now, pay less."

All of the big oil companies have less than stellar environmental/human rights records domestically and internationally. A 2006 Friends of the Earth report found Royal Dutch Shell is fueling corruption and violence in Nigeria. The company also has an extensive history of oil leaks and spills (more than 4,000 spills since 1960) throughout Nigeria.

Shell continues to flare off (burn in open air) natural gas, polluting the air, and endangering people and wildlife in large areas of the country. This practice is ubiquitous around the world, not just by multinational oil companies but by many state-owned oil companies.

In Ecuador, Texaco discontinued its drilling operations in the rain forests of northeastern Ecuador more than a decade ago. However, OxfamAmerica found the company left behind an enormous expanse of land and water polluted by more than 18 billion gallons of wastewater and oil.

The wastewater and oil leaked into neighboring rivers, streams, and lakes from storage pits, where it poisoned the irreplaceable fishing and drinking waters of rainforest inhabitants. Local Ecuadorian citizens are now suing Texaco in U.S. courts.

In the United States, oil companies also have problems adhering to environmental regulations. The Environmental News Service reported in 2007 that British oil company BP was fined $303 million in 2004 for manipulating propane prices, $50 million for a refinery fire in 2005 in which 15 people died, and more than $20 million for spilling 200,000 gallons of oil on pristine land in Alaska.

Recently, some political pundits have stated "not one drop of oil was spilled after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita." In fact, a report by the government's Mineral Management Service concluded more than 740,000 gallons of oil was released from destroyed oil platforms and broken underwater pipelines and more than 165 platforms were damaged or destroyed by these hurricanes.

While technology has improved, disasters continue, and oil companies globally continue to degrade the environment and exploit indigenous people. Unfortunately, the examples above are not out of the ordinary occurrences. So why should we pay more in subsidies in the future for oil that is hard to reach, expensive to extract, and damaging to our environment when extracted?

The controversy over drilling for oil now on U.S. soil has been subverted by many misleading and factually incorrect statements. The Energy Information Agency stated "85 percent of federal onshore oil resources and 88 percent of federal onshore natural gas resources occurring on federal lands" are already available for leasing and development.

In addition, areas containing 80 percent of undiscovered, recoverable gas on the Outer Continental Shelf are open to leasing. A Bureau of Land Management study concluded "the vast majority of federal lands currently under lease are not being developed."

Why are the oil companies not drilling? Some people speculate that the oil companies have no incentive to drill when drilling would only increase supply, reduce the prices and diminish their profits. Regardless of the reason, it would still take years before this oil or gas reached the U.S. market.

The EIA clearly explained in 2007 that "access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030. Leasing would begin no sooner than 2012, and production would not be expected to start before 2017" and "because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant."

Obviously, drilling here, drilling now simply will not result in paying less. A lesser known aspect of this issue concerns unconventional oil reserves.

The unconventional oil reserves are usually defined as tar sands and oil shale. While there is a substantial amount of oil available from these sources, they do not come without enormous costs. The BLM has this to say about tar sands and oil shale:

"About two tons of tar sands or oil shale is required to produce one barrel of oil ... Both mining and processing of tar sands and oil shale involve a variety of environmental impacts, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, disturbance of mined land; impacts on wildlife and air and water quality.

"The development of a commercial tar sands and oil shale industry in the United States would also have significant social and economic impacts on local communities. Of special concern in the relatively arid western United States is the large amount of water required for tar sands and oil shale processing; currently, tar sands and oil shale extraction and processing require several barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced ..." (BLM 2008).

It is clear from the statement above that the extraction of these two unconventional sources would add greatly to climate change problems and create several additional environmental challenges. It will cost billions of dollars to drill off the OCS, in the Arctic, and to mine tar sands/oil shale deposits. The environmental damage would also be extreme, to include air polluted with mercury and other heavy metals, water acidification from acid rain and mining, and massive consumption and degradation of water supplies during mining and refining.

Regrettably, if all these non-renewable resources were exploited we would not be any closer to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels.

John Ackerman is chair of the Alabama chapter of the Sierra Club.

Tomorrow: What alternatives exist right now that could replace these fossil fuel sources and would be a better investment of U.S. tax dollars?


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