Oil-Addicted U.S. Finds New Dealer in Canadian Tar Sands

Washington, D.C.—Canadian tar sands deposits hold an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of crude oil, second in the world only to Saudi Arabia, but the devastating environmental impact of mining them far exceeds that of conventional oil, according to the September/October issue of World Watch magazine. The energy-intensive process of extracting crude bitumen from the mixture of sand, clay, and silt releases up to three times more greenhouse gas pollution than conventional oil extraction and is wreaking havoc on local forests, wildlife, fresh water resources, and air quality, Dan Woynillowicz writes in “Tar Sands Fever!”

“Everything about the tar sands is big,” Woynillowicz writes, “most significantly its global warming and environmental implications—leading some to now describe the tar sands as ‘Canada’s dirty secret.’”

The tar sands deposits underlie more than 140,000 square kilometers of relatively pristine Canadian boreal forest, which accounts for one-quarter of the world’s remaining intact forests. If currently planned tar sands development projects go forward, approximately 3,000 square kilometers of boreal forest could be cleared, drained, and strip-mined. The remaining 137,000 square kilometers stand to be compromised by the extraction process used for deeper reserves, which requires injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be pumped to the surface.

The mining of the tar sands is also diverting streams and rivers and draining large amounts of water from the nearby Athabasca River, the primary source of the water used in the separation process. Tar sands mining operations withdraw 2 to 4.5 barrels of fresh water from the river for every barrel of oil produced, threatening the sustainability of local subsistence and commercial fisheries and the habitat of a wide variety of wildlife.

The United States currently receives 99 percent of Canadian crude oil exports. While this accounted for only 7 percent of U.S. daily consumption in 2005, tar sands production and development has grown dramatically in recent years, and more than $100 billion of investment has been announced for development over the next decade.

Referring to the U.S. “addiction to oil,” Woynillowicz observes: “Most of us regard addictions as inherently unhealthy and admission of the problem as the first step toward getting clean. In this case, however, U.S. policy has simply been to seek increased oil imports from more reliable sources closer to home—in effect, to replace distant and unstable dealers with one from the neighborhood.”

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Two years after Hurricane Katrina, a discussion of the manmade conditions that contributed to the devastation prompts doubts that we’ve learned the right lessons.

PATCHING UP PARADISE

In the midst of a two-decade civil war, Sri Lanka struggles to utilize tsunami relief efforts while navigating a volatile peace process.

A NEW CAPITALISM

Contributor Peter Barnes proposes the creation of a commons sector representing natural resources and society at large within the current economic system.

MATTERS OF SCALE: The Deadly Century

Estimated number of people who died during the 20th century, all causes..............4.13 billion

Estimated deaths from smallpox.............................................................300 million

From war, genocide, tyranny, and manmade famine......................................188 million

From smoking...................................................................................90 million

From AIDS.......................................................................................11.7 million

From homicide..................................................................................8.5 million

From natural disasters.........................................................................3.5 million