Check out this new report from Environmental Defence Canada. The title sort of says it all: “Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project On Earth” (PDF).
I found the title a bit overheated at first, but take a look before you decide. The claim may be debatable, but it’s also not mere hyperbole: the tar sands oil extraction very well could be the most destructive project on earth. In fact, it’s already yielding catastrophic results for human health, not to mention for a vast swath of North America’s ecology. (In any case, I’ve had the privilege of working on climate policy a bit with one of the authors, Matt Price, and I can attest that he’s a smart guy, not prone to exaggeration.)
I won’t summarize the study here, but just point out that among the many problems with tar sands oil, is that it can only be extracted and processed with very large energy inputs (which means huge carbon emissions):
The main reason is that extracting the oil from the sand is so energy intensive, from the large machines to the natural gas used to melt the bitumen out of the sand. It is estimated that by 2012 the Tar Sands will use as much gas as is needed to heat all the homes in Canada … Using huge amounts of relatively clean burning natural gas in order to produce dirty and carbon heavy oil is what commentators have dubbed “reverse alchemy” — the equivalent of turning gold into lead.
For a long time, it wasn’t economical to extract tar sands oil. But now, with high and rising oil prices — and plenty of demand from Canada’s neighbor — it’s starting to pencil out. It’s just a shame the accounting doesn’t factor in pollution, the cancer risk, the wildlife, the water quality, the air quality, the atmospheric carbon …
You get the idea.