Tar Sands Oil: Where Minnesota Gasses Up

Michael Noble
Fresh Energy

Ever wonder where your gasoline comes from? If you live in Minnesota, your gasoline mostly comes from unconventional oil sources like tar sands. These vast Canadian reserves of oil-soaked sands lie under 100 feet of virgin boreal forest in Alberta’s Athabasca River basin. Oil companies and governments from Europe, China, Canada and Korea are spending $15 billion a year to extract oil from these tarry sands. Destruction of streams and peatlands by oil sands mining covers a vast geography. According to world-renowned water scientist David Schindler, “It probably wouldn’t be a big concern if it were a small area, but of course, it’s no longer a small area, and I predict it will disrupt the whole hydrology of the lower Athabasca system.”

After moving the sandy oil in trucks the size of a three-story building, the sticky mess must be boiled with solvents and water using vast quantities of natural gas. One industry observer called it comparable to using caviar as fertilizer to grow turnips. The toxic effluent from washing the sand must be stored in vast holding ponds behind man-made earthen dams large enough to be seen from space.

By 2002, Canada had replaced Saudi Arabia and Mexico as the largest supplier of U.S. oil, and imports from Canada steadily grew to about one-fifth of U.S. oil consumption by 2008. To feed its addiction, the U.S. uses the equivalent of one supertanker of oil every four hours, according to Swedish oil expert Kjell Aleklett. That also drains about $1 billion of American wealth every day at current oil prices.

As global oil prices skyrocketed from 2000 to 2008, investment in Canada’s tar sands grew so rapidly even the oil industry was shocked. Currently, oil pipeline developers like Enbridge are spending upwards of $30 billion on a network of pipelines to move dirty oil to new and expanded oil refineries on the Great Lakes, in the Mississippi River Valley and oil patch states like Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Do Midwesterners really want to embrace a huge new oil refining industry on our Great Lakes? Let’s take stock of our dependence on oil. Better cars, better fuels, cars that run on electricity, strong transit infrastructure, high speed trains: modern technologies like these will put us on the road toward energy independence and a leadership position in clean power, the next major worldwide industry. Oil’s role in our future is declining. Tar sands devastation—like the Gulf oil catastrophe—is a visible consequence of status quo oil use. America has what it takes to make the changes we need. Isn’t it time we did?

Read Up

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greystone Books, 2009.

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization, by Jeff Rubin, Random House, 2009.

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