Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Will an American Surge Win the War for Oil?

Will an American Surge Win the War for Oil?
by Macdonald Stainsby
March 25, 2007


Alright, so a plan that was developed with questionable science and selective readings of intelligence has, after initially being supported by a population that trusted what they were told, become exceedingly unpopular. Despite the fact that the normally timid opposition has been uncharacteristically emboldened into questioning the goals of the policy, this same opposition states “We have to stay the course,” while mumbling about finding alternatives that will help the economy wean off dependence on this oil-producing region. The noises being made by politicians on the matter is simply reflective of the over-all population who say time and again, when asked, that reversing the dangerous course we are on is their top priority. So the neoconservatives in power have, after their secret plans were leaked, begun to escalate operations in a massive ‘Surge!’

Of course, the surge I am talking about is the five fold surge that is being called for in tarsand petroleum production in what are being rebranded by energy companies the ‘oilsands’ of Alberta. This level of production, to energy analysts, will be notable in that it will leave more than a quarter of all American oil every day coming from tarsands pits in a decade. Much like how Baghdad is seeing the largest embassy in the world built to house the US ambassador , the infrastructure of “facts-on-the-ground” that one can see puts the lie to all the yammer about Kyoto, tackling climate change or someday leaving the region entirely. Like the huge military bases under construction throughout Iraq , places like Fort McMurray are signals that the road charted so far is a permanent one—as an emergency injection of $400 million was just approved by the province in order to provide immediate housing, health care, sewage and public schools. Residents of this exploding city say it’s just scratching the surface. Also just scratching the surface is focusing narrowly on Alberta.

The discussions between the US Department of Energy and Natural Resources Canada were also attended by the executives of the major oil companies. Though the meetings were held over a year ago and the minutes were leaked in the latter half of January 2007, the contents have neither been denied nor altered by any of those involved. Instead of backtracking since the release of these papers, the Albertan government has streamlined the application of the Kearl Project, yet another massive tarsand—some would say “tar pit” describes it better—operation when the community of Fort Muck barely can operate as is. These meetings lay down an energy “plan”.

Instead of studying the carefully crafted greenwash that come with the statements of any and all politicians, let us look to the market analysts to see what the plans are. According to Cargill Power and Gas:

"Natural gas used for either on-site cogeneration facilities, steam assisted gravity drainage, or other extraction and heavy oil processing techniques is expected to total 1.5 to 2.0 Bcf/d by 2010, far surpassing the 1 Bcf/d [billion cubic feet a day] capacity of the proposed Mackenzie Delta Pipeline."

This is a monstrously significant statement. The natural gas in the Beaufort Delta of the Arctic Ocean is the second largest as-yet untapped natural gas reserve known (Behind the Sverdrup Basin in the High Arctic) . Any pipeline constructed, whether by the “Mackenzie Gas Project” or not, would be one of the largest industrial projects in Canada’s history, re-pegged last week by Imperial Oil at $16.2 billion to construct . However, the projected capacity has been adjusted to 1.2 Bcf/d in the time since the Cargill report written only two years ago, still far short of the goal, now increased. Where will the rest come from? Let’s start with the pipelines down the Alaska Highway Corridor, being proposed (yet again) by TransCanada pipelines as such:

"The pipeline would stretch more than 2700 km from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Alberta. It would follow the route of the existing trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the Alaska Highway, and continue through northern British Columbia to link with the pipeline grid in north western Alberta."

Now some of the natural gas in southeastern Alberta is being sent north, as pipelines are turned around to supply the needed energy to go after the tarsands reserves. Including gas from northeastern BC, all of these pipelines and more need to combine to five Bcf/d. Now we need to talk to the good people at Enbridge. First, natural gas alone is not enough. Enbridge has a solution:

"The Southern Lights Diluent Pipeline involves development of a new pipeline system to transport light hydrocarbon liquids from the Chicago area back to Western Canada where the light hydrocarbon liquids are required as diluent for heavy crude production from the oil sands. The system will include the construction of 1085 kilometres (674 miles) of 20-inch pipe from Chicago to Clearbrook, Minnesota, and the reversal of an existing 1463-kilometre (909-mile) light crude line (Line 13) from Clearbrook to Edmonton, Alberta, at an estimated combined cost of approximately US$900 million."

Enbridge is proving to be the biggest winner in where this is all headed. The Gateway project across northern British Columbia –where multiple indigenous nations have launched a lawsuit in combined opposition to the plan on land they have never ceded—is described by Enbridge themselves:

"Gateway Pipeline Inc.[…] proposes to construct and operate an export oil pipeline and an import condensate pipeline between an inland terminal near Edmonton, Alberta and a marine terminal near Kitimat, British Columbia. Gateway also proposes to construct and operate marine infrastructure at tidewater to accommodate transfer of oil and condensate into and out of tankers, respectively.The marine infrastructure will be an integral component of the pipeline terminal near Kitimat. These activities are collectively referred to as the Enbridge Gateway Project [….]"

This component project would be estimated at $4 billion. The goal of the oil in this pipe would be to ship it to Asian markets alongside US. That is not the case for Enbridge’s other projects, designed to help refine and ship tarsand petroleum into the lower 48. These involve some new construction, linking up existing systems, and in some cases already bring heavy oil for refinement all the way to Oklahoma, Louisiana or Texas. The Spearhead Project to build more of the infrastructure into this system would compliment the Alberta Clipper Project planned from east of Edmonton, Alberta linking up to systems in Illinois. Also planned are a few feeders and smaller projects, including:

"The Southern Lights Pipeline is a proposed 180,000 barrel-per-day pipeline to transport diluent from the U.S. Midwest to Western Canada. Diluent is required to transport heavy oil and bitumen being produced in increasing volumes in Alberta."

If this spider web of massive industrial growth leaves you wondering whatever happened to the supposed “post industrial” society we were promised, it should. All of these massive undertakings (I’ve only highlighted the biggest ones linking the east, west, north and south ends of Turtle Island) are as interconnected as the blood vessels running in your body. This is both the self-justifying expansion of the tarsands and the necessary components. An interconnected whole. Building some of these likely means building them all. And, building them all—even if we *only* include the projects connected to the tar sands and already being promoted by energy corporations Shell, Exxon, ConocoPhilips et al— is a combined cost of over $160 billion. Investors may overlook many things, but a “risk” of any part of something this size is not going to be one of them. People who have concerns about segments of this new class of gigaproject need to conceive of it as a whole, just as surely as the Canadian and American elites do: From Alaska’s North Slope to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Houston meeting made no bones about the need to construct these pipelines and tarsand plants with *less* environmental regulation. Tarsand production today, sitting at approximately 1.3 million bpd (2007) and over a million directly being fed to the US markets, is already Canada’s single greatest greenhouse gas emitter. Those are modern numbers, never mind Kyoto targets of many years ago—Canada has increased emissions in far greater levels since before signing the protocol. Five fold expansion would leave tarsand emissions growing to a level where they may outstrip all other industry combined for Canada’s current output of carbon dioxide. Just the facilities in Alberta, and just the process of removing goo from muck. This would be *after* several of the largest industrial projects in all of North American history have already been assembled, and *before* all that gas gets burned and expels c02 from all those cars, houses, jet airliners and lawnmowers. This is the “alternative” to reliance on Middle Eastern oil for Dick Cheney’s America. Not with a tiny amount of irony was Cheney’s planned trip to Fort McMurray canceled due to the climate change disaster called Katrina.

Canadians have long been self-satisfied with politicians who occasionally pay lip-service to separation from the United States, but to get some kind of active response from people north of 49 often takes work. The Achilles Heel is the plan for the water. Americans looking to send oil south may grate a few nerves but it isn’t much to get excited about on its own, until people hear about the water. It takes 5 liters of water, freshwater that today is primarily being drawn straight out of the Athabasca River. Over the last half decade, the province of Alberta has quietly begun a process that will make water itself kick into chapter 11 provisions of NAFTA, making it out of the reach of any public control. Today a corporation can purchase water rights in Alberta, much like in Texas, for industrial development. It is touted for the southern farmer of Alberta where water is scarce, but in the long run it must have a much more sinister application.

The mighty waterways of Alberta will all be threatened to varying degrees before the process of constructing the tarsands is complete. As of right now, the water usage approved for tarsand production is over three times that of Calgary, Alberta (over one million population) before any new projects are begun. The waste tailings ponds are already vast enough to spot from space. That water gets used up helping turn four tonnes of earth into one barrel of oil. There has been no such thing as land reclamation in any report or panel yet, but four million tonnes of earth a day is being set to go as high as twenty. The emissions from tarsands are set to go from 3 to 7 times their current output of c02.

Of course in Canada, there is the continuing issue of genocidal conditions that leave indigenous nations locked between industrial displacement and colonial impoverishment in lieu of real resource control and self-determination. The tarsands question includes but is not limited to: Conflicts in the development of the Mackenzie pipeline system with Dene and Inuvialuit peoples. The Dene Thá (Northern BC/AB) have successfully taken the Government to the federal court, citing a lack of consultation on the proposed MGP. That ruling has since been modified. The Dehcho (southern NWT) have historically opposed the pipelines construction on both environmental and social grounds, and have recently joined with the community of Fort Chipewyan (northeast AB, downstream on the Athabasca River from huge tarsand developments in and around “Fort Muck”) in calling for a moratorium on tarsand development. Both are concerned about the water, but not just that siphoned off by the tarsands— but the possible downstream results of them.

The Globe and Mail reported cancer rates for the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan have grown at a rate statistically impossible without variable factors. Cholangiocarcinoma-- 5 cases, leukemia—5 cases, lymphoma—4 cases. They haven’t seen any “official” report come out, but they already blame the water. If similar “reports” are any indication, waiting for a government document will disappoint. The pollution in the water blamed on the tarsands, however, may come from Uranium City, a long distance away but sharing the shores of Lake Athabasca. The difference here might as well be cosmetic, as the “alternative” [read: after the natural gas in the Arctic, Alaska and northern BC runs out] power source for the tarsands long suspected but only days ago announced-- will be nuclear power.

The community of Déline in the Sahtu region of Denendeh (NWT) has experience with uranium mining from decades previous. Fat Man and Little Boy were built from uranium that was mined at Port Radium to do so during WWII. There is a push to re-open this mine, despite peculiar deaths over decades—decades that left Déline with the nickname “Village of Widows”. Despite this, another “final report” officially exonerating the Eldorado mine on Great Bear Lake was issued only last year. This uranium rained death on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and many Dene have “mysteriously” died ever since. This mine will begin cleanup this summer, and could be ready to help build nuclear plants for the tarsands—plants that the Energy Alberta Corporation just announced a few days ago are planned for between 36 months from now and 2016. Save the Earth: Go nuclear or burn gas to dig massive pits to waste freshwater to get dirty oil. Now burn that oil, or the terrorists win!

Of course, this massive waste of freshwater is so far coming directly out of the Athabasca, and as part of this “Texas North” Albertan “Surge”, it is now guaranteed to do so regardless of emergency situations including even droughts that affect a massive drop in water level. Mere days ago as well, the province of Alberta announced the water will never be cut off and even named this the new “water management plan”. Tarsand plunder of water is now sacred.

While the Conservatives battle with the Liberals for who can pretend to love the environment more, both promise to protect the operations of tarsands belching out emissions. When a Conservative Member of Parliament recently “accused” the Liberal Party of trying to shut down the tarsands, the Liberal Party machinery issued angry denunciations of such “fear mongering” . Perhaps overkill for the Liberals, whose own leader once uttered while environment minister for the previous government that “There is no environment minister on Earth that will stop this oil from being produced.”

However, faced with a bait and switch game too many local, federal and international environmentalists have thrown their weight behind hoping for just such a miracle. Many organizations, perhaps trying to buy for time, ask for the province of Alberta to have a “time out” period, a time when “only” the tarsands as is, “only” the infrastructure of pipelines to the Arctic, uranium mines for nuclear power plants, pipelines across nation after nation despite opposition, continue, just hold off on building these other facilities until after the first ones get bled dry. A moratorium on new development is called for, leaving the others chugging along. Though better than the “Surge” of the oil companies, a simple moratorium may already be imposed soon due to the constraints of the size of this gigaproject. If a labour shortage isn’t the problem, then not enough energy (infrastructure) is.

Can calling for only this moratorium make sense? Spread out the greenhouse gas emissions, build the pipelines, all the self-justifying infrastructure, just alter the timeframe so that the infrastructure is built in all directions across the continent first? Is the environmental opposition to the tarsands merely doling out financial resource planning advice? The whole point of the approvals process, the hearings and the use of these community meetings and assessment impacts—aside from placating the population with Orwellian visions of “input”– is to keep all of this incredible Dr Stangelove ecology disconnected into small, isolated issues. When a new pipeline gets proposed that will run only 200 km’s across Prairie, it seems innocuous. The panel only looks at it, isolated. But seen on the larger picture—a picture of the continent slashed to death with industrial development coast to coast to coast, running over nation after nation after nation, being put together faster than anything ever before. We cannot speak of a moratorium on these plans any more than we call for a simple moratorium on torture.

For any and all good intentions, this timidity of the mainstream environmental movement is courting disaster. But this is far from an environmental issue alone. It so happens that with rising oil prices due to Middle East ‘instability’, the tar sands can offset the cost of doing war in Iraq. Should this get interrupted it would be a massive boon for the anti-war forces around the globe. We can no longer afford to negotiate the future of the tarsands. People will do what, in Stephane Dion’s own words, “no environment minister on earth” will do. We must shut down the tarsands, before the snowball picks up any more speed and velocity (if it hasn’t done so already) and obliterates everything in its path. The Surge must be defeated. It’s a simple question of human rights.

Macdonald Stainsby is a freelance journalist, writer, social justice activist and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world. He can be reached at mstainsby@resist.ca and he is the coordinator of http://oilsandstruth.org

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