Canada’s got a problem—the kind of problem that prompted a Catholic bishop to write a scathing pastoral letter and an environmental group to place a desperate personal ad. Canada’s got oil. That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that getting to the oil (which is actually bitumen), collecting it and making it useable is one humungous environmental clusterf**k.
Bitumen (which sounds like “bitchy men” if you say it quickly) is a solid glob of petroleum that can be refined into regular old oil. In the Florida-sized section of Alberta’s boreal forest known as the Alberta oil sands, bitumen accounts for 10 percent of the soil. The rest is sand, clay, silt and water.
Hold the phone! A Florida-sized chunk of land? An area the Alberta government claims is twice the size of New Brunswick, four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island and 26 times bigger than Price Edward Island? Yup. Experts say there are 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in the oil sands, but only 173 billion barrels are actually recoverable using current technology and current prices. Still, that’s a lot of oil. Some see it as the key to weaning us off our addiction to Mid-East oil. Others see it as a forest-wrecking, water-wasting, energy-intensive, toxic clusterf**k.
The clusterf**king starts in the forest. Workers cut down trees and yank up the topsoil and peat. With the pesky trees, animals and soil out of the way, they extract the bitumen using one of two methods: strip mining (like mountaintop removal mining) or “in situ thermal,” which blasts steam underground to pump out the melted bitumen. Then the bitumen is processed. The mixture of sand, clay and bitumen is combined with hot water and caustic soda. When the mixture is shaken (not stirred), the sand settles to the bottom, the oil floats to the top and a whole bunch of crap called the “middlings” ends up somewhere in the middle. Workers skim the oil from the surface—it still needs further refining before it’s market-ready—and send the middlings to the tailing ponds.
Now, how much does it cost? Financially-speaking, producing one barrel of oil from the oil sands costs 10 times more than producing one barrel of oil using the conventional “drill, baby, drill” method. Environmentally-speaking, the cost meets and exceeds clusterf**k standards.
Producing a single barrel of oil from the oil sands requires four tons of sand, three barrels of fresh water and a whole lotta natural gas. The oil sands operations produce 1 million barrels of oil each day. That means that they use 4 million tons of sand, 3 million barrels of fresh water and enough natural gas to heat 4 million American homes in a single 24-hour period.
Not surprisingly, the carbon footprint of the oil sands is gargantuan. Producing one barrel of oil sands oil produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than the process of producing one barrel of conventional oil. Current estimates put the industry’s annual emissions at 40 million tons. (According to Environmental Defence Canada, if the oil sands was a country, it would be the 63rd highest greenhouse gas emitter, right between New Zealand and Denmark.) And it’s getting worse. Experts predict that the oil sands will produce 80 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2011, accounting for at least 15% of Canada’s total carbon footprint.
The industry produces an impressively disturbing amount of toxic waste as well. Making one barrel of oil produces two barrels of toxic waste. One company, Syncrude, produces 250,000 tons of toxic waste each day. The waste is dumped into the massive tailing ponds—they cover an area of 50 square kilometers (more than 19 square miles) and can be seen from space—where it will stay until someone figures out a way to detoxify it. Until then, the companies are supposed to keep ducks out of the ponds. Sounds simple, eh? Not so much. In April 2008, 500 ducks died after landing in Syncrude’s ponds.
So Canada’s got a problem or a clusterf**k or a SNAFU (although it was never really “normal”), whatever you want to call it. Frankly, we think Al Gore summed it up best in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview: “It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes.”