Our civilization’s addiction to oil is being displayed in all its nefarious glory in the tar sands of Canada. According to Chris Nelder:
What we have here is arguably the most environmentally destructive activity man has ever attempted, with a compliant government, insatiable demand, and an endless supply of capital turning it into “a speeding car with a gas pedal and no brakes.” It sucks down critical and rapidly diminishing amounts of both natural gas and water, paying neither for its consumption of natural capital nor its environmental destruction, to the utter detriment of its host. And all to eke out maybe a 10% profit, if it turns out that the books haven’t been cooked, and if the taxation structure remains a flat-out giveaway.
Greenpeace recently announced a new campaign against the tar sands, pointing out that “Tar sands produce five times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil, because they are energy-intensive, requiring huge amounts of natural gas to separate and process the bitumen.”
As I recently posted, processing tar sands leads to more pollution in the United States. Tar-sand oil production leads to more global warming, is being pursued because of peak oil, and continues the wholesale destruction of ecosystems, as Nelder enumerates:
Tar sands plants typically use two to four barrels of water to extract a barrel of oil … and after it’s been through the process, the water is toxic with contaminants, so it cannot be released into the environment. Some of it is reused, but vast amounts of it are pumped into enormous settlement ponds to be retained as toxic waste. These “ponds” are actually the largest bodies of water in the region — big enough to be seen from space — and some of the world’s largest man-made ponds overall, with miles of surface area. It may take 200 years for the smallest particles to settle down to the bottom of this toxic brew, which also contains very high levels of heavy metals and other health-threatening elements … With the tar sands currently producing at the rate of about 1 million barrels per day (mbpd), water levels in the river are already going down. Given such intense water demands, it’s completely unclear how production can be increased to the target of 4 mbpd by 2020.
The natural gas used is so unsustainable, oil companies are considering putting nukes on top of the tar sands:
Professor Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University, a recognized expert on tar sands, puts it bluntly: “The supply of natural gas in North America is not adequate to support a future Canadian oil sands industry with today’s dependence on natural gas” … After gas, the next obvious choice is nuclear energy — building dozens of nuclear plants to generate the heat needed to create the steam needed to drive the hydrocarbons out of the sand.
So how do we end this addiction? Let me modestly propose three broad policy goals:
- Use less oil in vehicles, which obviously means higher mileage standards, but should also include a sufficient program of R&D and government purchases of electric vehicles. But we need something that can help reduce the number of miles driven, or else oil use will creep up over the years as people drive more, so:
- Radically increase funding for light rail, electrified rail freight, buses, and high-speed intercity rail;
- and now for something different — how about freezing construction of new highways, and instead using the money for R&D, public transit, and fixing the existing roads and collapsing bridges? The people organizing the recent fast against global warming called for a freeze on coal plant construction; to that demand we could add a call for a halt to new highway construction.
Between tar sands and other petroleum boondoggles on the one hand, and biofuels production on the other, we need to find ways to decrease the need for the use of fuel-based vehicles, for the sake of the planet and its people.