You’ll be hearing more about them. Probably for the rest of your life. Why? Because if TransCanada and the U.S. State Department and a whole lot of oil companies and investors have their way, this gooey mess called tar sands (TransCanada’s people are quick to refer to it as “oil sands” which they must think sounds better) will become our new energy best friend. That’s because there’s millions of tons of it — actually hundreds of square miles of it — in the Canadian province of Alberta.
This Google Earth satellite shot shows what the site looks like now. Those green things surrounding this ugly slash in the contour of the earth is the ancient boreal forest that once covered Alberta like a rich pelt. The problem with the tar sands is that they are inconveniently located under these forests. So, adios forests. Bummer that you loose all that CO2 you’ve been holding back into the atmosphere once you’re cut down.
That much isn’t new. We’re already getting 18-20% of our oil from this source as it is, via pipelines that now honeycomb the country — breaking like crazy along the way. Remember the oil spill in Michigan this year? How about the one in the Yellowstone River in Montana? Big messes still and probably forever. Once it’s spilled, oil doesn’t go away. Think Exxon Valdez and Prince William Sound in Alaska. Or BP and what’s left of the Gulf of Mexico.
What’s different about this pipeline, called the Keystone XL, is that if it’s built, it will be something of an oil super highway, stretching for 1700 miles across the U.S. central heartland, criss crossing 1800 streams and riverbeds (not to mention our critical High Plains fresh water supply–the Ogallala aquifer) on its way to refineries in Houston with its payload. Current estimates are that nearly a million barrels PER DAY will zoom through that 36-inch wide pipe and it will take one whale of a lot of fresh water and natural gas (not to mention God only knows what toxic chemicals) to get it to a state where it can be transported and blown through that pipeline.
The arguments for its being approved will be the same ones we’ve heard ad nauseum: jobs, independence from Middle Eastern oil, there’s an endless supply, if we don’t get it, China will. We can keep on keeping on pretty much for a couple hundred years on what’s there, that’s true. The jobs issue is fake. The pipeline would run through the middle of nowhere, so people would have to migrate to the jobs and once the pipeline is built, those jobs (not including the cleanup crews) would largely disappear. And the whole idea that this saves us from the greedy hands of Middle Eastern despots or we’ll be losing out to other developing gas-guzzling nations ignores the fact that we shouldn’t be moving in this direction with our energy policies at all. We have to stop moving backwards to the fossil fuels that are fouling our planet and invest in renewables. Period.
There’s an additional problem: it’s the filthiest carbon based product known to man, dumping geometrically more CO2 into our overtaxed atmosphere which is already dealing with twice as much CO2 as it can naturally handle annually. What good will it do to have all the oil we can use if our air is unbreathable? It’s like an episode of the Twilight Zone starring Burgess Meredith in which a reclusive bookworm inadvertently survives atomic warfare and emerges to find every book of any merit literally at his feet. But life tosses him a final curve ball. His thick glasses, without which he can’t read a word, get broken. So he is condemned to a special kind of hell, where his idea of heaven is simultaneously within reach but totally beyond his capacity to enjoy. That’s us and the tar sands. All we want and need but no happy ending. Just life through a smashed prism.
You’re going to be hearing a lot more about these tar sands because a showdown is brewing. The decision about whether this pipeline becomes a fixture in our landscape lies in President’s Obama’s hands and nowhere else. He signs the permission slip or he lets it lie on his desk.
For the 1253 people arrested at the 15-day sit-in in front of the White House fence last month, this was serious business. The tar sands need to stay where they are. We don’t need to be breathing their filth into our lungs and we don’t need to be contaminating anyone else’s lungs with that either. It’s time to just say whoa and find another way. We can do better than just being the world’s energy hog. That’s so 20th century.