Mining Tar Sands Oil: Land Impacts

On June 14th, 2018 Forbes online published an article titled “It's High Time To Approve Enbridge's Oil Pipeline Replacement Plans written by Jude Clemente.  The article was a laughably-researched piece of industrial drivel that attempted to link “pro-pipeline” and “anti-pipeline” sentiments to electricity prices.  He also attempted to categorize Enbridge as a company that cared about the environment based on the number of instances “environment” was mentioned in their annual report.  He closed the article claiming the shale boom was a major economic driver, “spurred a manufacturing renaissance, enhanced national security”, and most outrageously “driven environmental progress” (emphasis added).  For reference the article can be read here:

The justifications and reality Mr. Clemente lays out is so mind-boggling it is hard to know where to start on addressing this mess of an article.  Let’s start with this statement: “Bottlenecks in Alberta have plunged the price of its heavier crude versus other grades, so producers in the region can't realize fair gains on their oil production due to insufficient pipeline capacity.” There’s a few things to unpack here.  First, is the allusion that a new, bigger Line 3 is needed to reduce bottleneck and ensure “fair gains” for Alberta producers.  This is a very true statement. Because of the rising opposition to the tar sands, new pipeline capacity has been stalled, which in turn has reduced the amount of tar sands crude that can get refined and on the market.  This a very good thing. Tar sands are basically the bottom of the barrel when it comes to fuel sources, having one of the lowest “return on energy investment” of any other fuel source. This means that the amount of energy one gallon of tar sands oil is able to give to your vehicle is barely more than the energy need to mine, upgrade, refine, transport and use the tar sands crude.  The reason why this statement of Mr. Clemente is important here is because the way the project has been presented to the Minnesota public (and Public Utility Commissioners) is that is needed to eliminate the very real risk from the existing Line 3. Nearly all the commissioners used this as coverage for when they made their radical decision to approve the project. It is important to note how radical that decision was.  All four of the other state agencies that have reviewed the project have advised against issuing a permit for the project, the overwhelming majority of Minnesotans do not want the project, and the entire process has been a textbook case of lack of proper tribal consultation. I’ll get back to the issue of tribal consultation later, but let’s address the other staggering part of that statement “producers in the region can’t realize fair gains”.  What does that mean, “fair gains”? The tar sands are one of the most environmentally damaging fuel sources, and as with other other extractive industry most costs are externalized- passed on to tax payers or future generations.

Tar sands are extracted from the ground in one of two ways: mining or steam extraction.  Mining results in the decimated landscapes seen below:


Steam extraction is a bit less surface intensive, but still contributes to the ever growing problem of settling ponds. These massive toxic ponds are needed to separate the fine soil and sand particles from the water used during the extraction process.  They are so toxic that it is estimated over 5,000 birds die each year after landing in them.  Despite attempts to prevent birds from seeking rest in the toxic ponds, the issue does not look like it is going away.  Little can be done to spread up the process of separation and even if there was, the science of restoration of tar sands scarred land is not advanced.  After 50 years of mining, 0.1% of the mined land has been reclaimed.  And this “reclaimed” land hardly fills the ecological services the boreal forests once provided.  The costs of this eventual reclamation, the costs of the lost ecosystems services, the death of the birds, the contamination of the air and water, and the impacts to local First Nations are not on the books of the Alberta producers, nor is the social and cultural costs of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women affecting their bottom dollar.  Honor the Earth has attempted to put an ecological cost on a barrel of tar sands, and while nowhere complete, we’ve estimated it to be somewhere around $231,800.00 or roughly $5,300/gallon.  So tell me again, Jude, what is “fair gains” for an industry with such an enormous debt to society?

The answer to what all that additional pipeline capacity means for producers?

“by the government's own forecast, additional pipeline capacity would allow Alberta producers to receive up to $7 US more per barrel… Improved market access would also improve oil prices and production, boosting royalties by up to $10.5 billion over the next five years, according to the government.”

So, up to $10.5 billion for them over the next five years and $212 billion in ecological damage for the rest of us.  Per year. From one line.

But tell me again about fair gains.  

Click below to contribute!


Volunteer Donate