The dirty truth about Canada’s tar-sands baby

AFP/Getty Images In his article “Think Again: Oil” (subscribers only) from the new issue of FP, Vijay Vaitheeswaran of The Economist argues that despite all the doomsday predictions you hear, the world is not running out of oil. He singles out the tar sands in Alberta, Canada as an example of a relatively unexplored source. ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
598441_071030_syncrude_05.jpg
598441_071030_syncrude_05.jpg

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

In his article “Think Again: Oil” (subscribers only) from the new issue of FP, Vijay Vaitheeswaran of The Economist argues that despite all the doomsday predictions you hear, the world is not running out of oil. He singles out the tar sands in Alberta, Canada as an example of a relatively unexplored source. As it happens, Canada is already the largest supplier of oil to the United States. Tar-sand extraction has exploded since oil prices began to rise with the start of the Iraq war, and Canada’s total oil output will soon double Kuwait’s. But as Vaitheeswaran notes, tar-sand extraction comes at a much higher environmental cost than traditional drilling. A new article by Aida Edemariam in The Guardian makes clear just how great this cost is:

The extraction of the oil requires heat, and thus the burning of vast amounts of natural gas – effectively one barrel of gas to extract two of crude – and some estimate that Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oil sands will soon be Canada’s biggest contributor to global warming; nearly as much as the whole of Denmark. This in an area that has already seen, according to David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, two degrees of warming in the past 40 years.

The oil sands excavations are changing the surface of the planet. The black mines can now be seen from space. In 10 years, estimates Schindler, they are “going to look like one huge open pit” the size of Florida. Acid rain is already killing trees and damaging foliage. The oil companies counter that they are replanting – grass for bison, 4.5m trees by Syncrude alone – but the muskeg (1,000-year-old peat bog and wooded fen, which traps snow melt and prevents flash floods, and is home to endangered woodland caribou) is irreplaceable.

Two barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of oil; every day as much water is taken from the Athabasca river as would serve a city of a million people. Although the water is extensively recycled, it cannot be returned to the rivers, so it ends up in man-made “tailings ponds” (tailings is a catch-all term for the byproducts of mining), which are also visible from space.

Edemariam profiles the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. In addition to the environmental impact of the nearby mining, Fort McMurray is struggling to deal with a population that has doubled in the last decade—not including the 10,000 itinerant construction workers from around the world who live there at any given time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, prostitution and gambling are booming as well. So, there’s no such thing as a free lunch: The crude found in Canada’s sands may be “safe oil” compared with what we buy from unsavory regimes in the Middle East, but it’s hardly an attractive alternative.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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