Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Into the Muskeg Swamps of Northern Alberta

Into the Muskeg Swamps of Northern Alberta

A Brief Ideological History of the Tar Sands

Earth First Journal

By Nickle

"This is not oil drilling. It's not even mining. It is
terrestrial skinning. Vast, vivid landscapes are being
gutted, left monochromatic gray." --NAOMI KLEIN

For those who are familiar with pictures of mountaintop
removal sites, imagine a mine that looks the same only not
constrained by the topography. Tar sands mines in Canada
stretch from horizon leaving the land a veritable moonscape
specked with the worlds largest earth-moving trucks and
shovels, dots of yellow compared to the totality of the mine
itself, meandering slowly about picking at the muck.

Herman Kahn, Born 1922 in the United States, was a
preeminent futurist of the later half of 20th century.
Futurology is a not-so-well-known corner in the arena of
probability where scientists and academics attempt to
systematically predict the future through a combination of
basic assumptions regarding human nature and current
political dramas. Herman Kahn was a major player in this
field in the 60s and 70s.

At the time, Kahn was known for taking an unsavory tack in
the field, delving into the realm of the unthinkable. For
instance, post-nuclear war scenarios and human reactions
took the form of a logistical game for Kahn. In such a
circumstance, he posited, nuclear fallout would just be one
of life's general unpleasantries, the much feared rise in
birth defects would be negligible since they wouldn't happen
to everybody, and radioactive food could be fed to the
elderly because they would die anyway before the onset of
cancer. Because of his willingness to engage with the
distasteful, Kahn was admired by nuclear arms disarmament
activists, such as Bertrand Russell, for this descriptive
analysis of what the future might hold, and hated by others
who thought that positing the consequences of nuclear war
and fall-out made the possibility that much more likely.

However, there is a certain kind of shortsightedness in
Kahn's line of reasoning; one specific element which also
appears, over and over again, in US policy decisions
regarding foreign affairs, the economy, and, specifically,
the future of energy development. It was his visions for
the future which were always ones of a certain kind of
unending hopefulness, of overcoming, of the indefatigable
nature of the human race to plow through whatever problem
arose. Man would never die because he would always adapt,
create, and thrive. However, Khan believed we would do this
regardless of how bad we may make the circumstances for
living, and that therefore consequences of decisions could
in some ways be ideologically circumvented. For Kahn, fears
regarding possible human and environmental consequences of
actions, when held up against short term gain, became
negligible. Today, this ideology seems to be a bedrock for
resource development, especially oil development, worldwide.
It doesn't matter what we do today, what irreparable damage
we commit, there will always be a way around it in the

Kahn took a note from another visionary, this time from the
oil industry. M. King Hubbert worked for Shell and was the
first to predict the peak and eventual decline of US oil
production in the 1950s. Hubberts work later became the
basis for a number of peak-oil scenarios. In the 1950s
Texas oil rodeo, any thought of wells running dry was
downright laughable. Hubbert was almost run offstage, but
by the early 1970s it was hard to argue anything other than
the demise of US preeminence in the field of oil resource
production. Texas Oil had peaked and the US was currently
importing almost one third of its oil from OPEC countries.

In 1973, the US was recoiling from the oil embargo presented
by OPEC which led to high prices, oil shortages, and lines
of cars stretching for blocks bleating at each other for
their turn at the pump. Thus, ideologically armed, in 1973
Kahn flew to Montreal to propose that Canada delve into the
tar sands.

The Alberta Tar Sands already held a strip mine and upgrader
located on the banks of the Athabaska River, erected by oil
visionary J. Howard Pew (of the future Pew foundation).
Pew's enterprise had been losing money for decades by mining
and refining the most expensive oil in the world. The
gamble that Pew had made, and that Kahn was urging the
Canadian and US Governments to take in a larger degree, was
based on the notion that as future oil reserves would run
out, the harder-to-refine and more expensive forms of
petroleum would take center stage, revamping the world
energy economy and placing Canada and the US back in a
central position. Kahn's predictions regarding the future
of the industry would prove correct. The only thing off was
his timing. The future boom in the tar sands wouldn't
happen for another 30 years, but when it finally hit, it
would prove to be something that even Khan couldn't have

You say oil, we say tar

Tar Sands are a thick, black, mucky mixture of water, clay,
sand, and hydrocarbons, hard as a hockey puck, and good for
patching a canoe. The eventual product, after rolling up the
forest, exhuming the earth, mixing it with water, heating
it, skimming it, upgrading it, mixing it again (this time
with light crude), piping it, refining it and finally
shipping it, is oil.

Well, kind of. Oil is generally conceived of as having come
from light or heavy crude. Think Texas oil fields slooshing
black rain and striking it rich. Technically speaking, tar
sands are bitumen. Bitumen is, basically, the lowest grade
oil product on the world shelf. It takes huge amounts of
energy to refine to something that is relatively useful.
Refining bitumen means huge amounts of water consumed,
natural gas burned, and a carbon footprint that can be seen
from space, along with the tailings ponds, strip mines,
roads, and clearcuts through the northeast quarter of

Even though most of the focus regarding tar sands mining is
in Canada, there are tar sand deposits else-where in the
world; Hugo Chavez, boasting the second largest pocket.
Utah, Russia, Congo, and Madagascar all contain smaller but
significant deposits. However, barrel for barrel, the
individual holdings of both Canada and Venezuela contain
more oil than Saudi or Iraqi reserves. In Canada, the tar
sands cover an area the size of the UK; Venezuela holds
deposits about a third of that size. In all, tar sands
represent about two thirds of the remaining oil reserves in
the world.

Tar sands mining around the world belongs to the same
burgeoning, bottom of the barrel,
once-this-is-gone-there'll-be-nothing-left field of the
energy industry as fracking, extremely deep sea drilling,
and polar pursuits. The term "unconventional oils" hardly
begins to describe them. For the tar sands, the process of
separating the bitumen from the sand and clay can only be
described as brute force. In general, the ratio of energy
input to barrel output in normal light crude operations is
about 1:100, meaning the energy contained in one barrel of
oil will produce 100 new barrels during extraction and
processing. For tar sands, that ratio drops to about 1:3.

In Canada, water is used in such extreme quantities that tar
sands production accounts for about 65 percent of water
withdrawals from the Athabaska River. This water is then
heated by huge amounts of natural gas, mixed with the tar
sands and other chemicals, and shaken about to separate the
oil for skimming. The leftover water is then returned to
tailings ponds that boast the largest earthen dams in the
world. That condensed oil/water/chemical slurry then leaks
from the ponds back into the Athabaska River at about a rate
of one billion gallons of toxic water per year, resulting in
unfathomable rates of arsenic in food supplies and rare
forms of cancer in downriver First Nations communities. The
water leakage from the tailings ponds could go up to about
6.6 billion gallons per year if future projections regarding
development are true.

In other parts of the world, the risks associated with tar
sands mining are compounded by the usually devastating
relationship between oil giants and European banks to
developing countries. In Madagascar, for instance, the
multinational French company Total S.A., one of the six
"supermajor" oil powers in the world, has been accused of
overthrowing the democratically elected government because
of it's lack of support for tar sands operations. In the
Congo, the Italian oil company Eni signed a deal in 2008
that combined both tar sands production and the largest palm
oil project on the planet. The size of the project is 1790
km square (1,113 miles), and even though Eni claims no
rainforest or areas of high biodiversity will fall within
the proposed zone, privately their estimates show that 50 to
70 percent of the tar sands covers these highly sensitive

Boomtown or Bust

Much of the focus and the history of tar sands mining lies
in Canada. In some ways, the history of Canada's tar sands
can be seen as a road map that any area slated for future
development would probably follow. Kahn's vision of the
future of tar sands development included what he saw as a
rush and boom of the resource, along with some unavoidable
consequences. What Kahn's vision didn't contain was the
level of destruction that mining the Alberta fields would
cause and just how far the tentacles of big oil would reach.

Fort McMurray today is a boom town the likes of which only
our great-grandparents would remember, and it comes with all
the social hallmarks of such a place. Workers are flooding
into Alberta from all corners of the world to work short
stints in the oil fields. The thousands of homes needed to
accept them can't be built quickly enough, many are flown in
and out from not so nearby cities.

Work camps, those bastions of company-paid "living
quarters," spot the area surrounding Fort McMurray. Company
officials have made a policy of keeping the accommodations
poor, lonely, and boring in order to prevent workers from
skipping work. The influx of immigrant workers means that
companies can exploit cheaper labor while visiting workers
wait the two years before receiving their landed immigrant
status. Women working in the oil fields have an especially
hard time, facing severe sexual harassment, lower wages, and
issues with gouging landlords and domestic abuse.

Downstream, the consequences of the mines take on a
different and more deadly tone. Canada's First Nations
communities have been facing inflated rates of rare forms of
cancer. Fish pulled from the river for food are often
covered with cancerous sores and sometimes boast two
mouths. Arsenic levels in moose meat were once claimed to
have been 300 times the normal safe standard for human
consumption. When the Alberta government got a hold of this
data and conducted their own study, they found that levels
were only 33 times the normal safe limit.

In 2007, Dr. John O'Connor, a community health provider in
the First Nations community of Ft. Chipewyan, was accused of
"causing undue alarm" when he drew the connection between
rare cancers in the community and the leaking mines just to
the north. Officials found O'Connor's conduct as a
"whistleblower" unacceptable. His license was suspended,
pending an investigation by the Alberta College of
Physicians and Surgeons, and even though three years later
he did return to practicing medicine, the take home story is
this: where the mines and money go, all must follow
lockstep, health concerns be damned.

The reach of tar sands production in Canada defies
conventional reason. Proposals on the table for a series of
huge pipelines to be built carrying oil and natural gas
makes the analogy to an octopus, both metaphorical and
visual. Of major concern is the Northern Gateway pipeline
to be built from Alberta to the British Columbia coast.
Pumping tar sands to the coast and from there taking it
south or west, would result in the lifting of a ten-year ban
on oil shipping that was originally imposed because of the
consequences of the Exxon Valdez spill. Leaking oil
pipelines in the US would span the shallow Ogallala Aquifer,
the largest in the world.

A Vision for the Future

Today Alberta has a booming petroified economy. The Boreal
forest is being scraped to it's core. The rivers are being
poisoned and what is happening to First Nations peoples is
tantamount to genocide. In many ways, it's all just
beginning. In the last few years, permits for tar sands
mines in Alberta have skyrocketed, to the extent that health
and regulatory agencies don't have the resources to keep up
and surrounding communities are being silenced.

There is a common assumption that rising oil prices will
provide an incentive for cleaner development and that the
industry will take care of itself somehow. In reality, the
future looks a lot more pessimistic. In the end, the problem
isn't so much the lack of oil in the world, but the
abundance of the remaining dirty fuels; coal, gas, shale,
tar sands, to name a few. Unless we change something big, we
may continue to follow Kahn's trajectory toward an
unthinkable future.


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