This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.


earthmoverI consider Time to be one of the more forward-looking periodicals when it comes to the environment. But the editors messed up in this week’s edition. The June 2 Time carries a breathless feature about the potential petroleum bonanza in Canada’s tar sands.

The article’s authors are so giddy with the testosterone rush of big-ass earth-moving machines that they forgot what a multifaceted disaster this “bonanza” would be. The magazine quotes tar men in Alberta as they marvel at their own ability to move mountains … literally.

At one open-pit mine, a manager brags that his operation moves enough dirt every 48 hours to fill Toronto’s 60,000-seat SkyDome. “A year from now, that mountain won’t be there,” he says, referring to a wall of black soil. Some of the biggest trucks on earth, 20 feet tall, carrying 320 tons of dirt in each load, crawl through the “stark landscape of jack pine, spruce and poplar forests” like Tonka toys built for Paul Bunyan.

How intense is the mining?

It takes two tons of tar sands to produce one barrel of oil, and oil companies are extracting 1.3 million barrels of crude every 24 hours. Much of the world’s petroleum, about 2 trillion barrels, is in tar sands. It is an alluring prize; as conventional crude becomes more expensive, oil from tar sands becomes more profitable.

“The mega-projects across Alberta’s oil sands rival some of the humankind’s greatest engineering achievements, including the pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China,” gushes Time. “Canada may become the new Saudi Arabia, the last great oil kingdom, right on the U.S. border.”

Let’s pause for a moment, take a deep breath, and think about this great engineering achievement. The “stark” landscape Time describes is Canada’s boreal forest. The Natural Resources Defense Council describes that major ecosystem this way:

In the far north latitudes, just below the treeless tundra of the polar region, a forest of evergreen trees encircles the earth: this is the boreal forest. The last frontier of northern forest wilderness in Canada, the boreal forest is North America’s greatest conservation opportunity. Although most of the world’s original wilderness forests have been logged or developed until just about 20 percent remains, approximately 80 percent of the Canadian boreal forest is still unfragmented by roads. Mostly in public hands, over half of Canada’s boreal has yet to be allocated to industrial use. This situation is quickly changing, however, as the boreal forest comes under imminent threat from industrial logging, hydropower, mining and oil and gas development.

Like the Amazon, the boreal forest is of critical importance to all living things on earth. It is home to the one of the world’s largest remaining stands of spruce, fir and tamarack. The thick layers of moss, soil and peat of the boreal are the world’s largest terrestrial storehouse of organic carbon and play an enormous role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Boreal wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day that fill our northern rivers, lakes, and streams. As a vast, intact forest ecosystem, the boreal supports a natural web of large carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lynx along with thousands of other species of plants, mammals, birds and insects.

“Canadians cannot forget they are custodian to one third of this essential global resource,” the Atlas of Canada warns. But good custodianship isn’t compatible with Canada becoming the Saudi Arabia of the north. As the NRDC explains:

The tar sands found deep beneath Alberta’s vast old-growth forests are made up of 90 percent sand, clay, silt, and water and 10 percent bitumen, a tarlike substance that can be converted to oil. Currently, most tar sands production relies on open pit mines, some as large as three miles wide and 200 feet deep. Because less than 20 percent of the oil-producing bitumen deposits are close to the surface, the rest of the deep reserves must be extracted by injecting steam underground and pumping out the melted bitumen. The amount of natural gas used daily during these processes could heat about four million American homes. Once separated from the sand, clay and silt, the bitumen is still of low grade and must undergo yet another energy-intensive process to turn it into a crude oil that more closely resembles conventional oil.

Alberta tar sands

Alberta tar sands.
Photo: NRDC.

Oil from tar sands has two especially sensitive liabilities: It uses a lot of water and it produces a lot of carbon emissions. Water is becoming an increasingly critical resource worldwide. It takes several barrels of water to make one barrel of oil from tar sands. And tar sands production emits three times more carbon than regular crude oil. It already is undermining Canada’s ability to meet its obligations under the Kyoto protocol. The Pembina Institute estimates that tar sands production in Alberta is producing 40 million tons of greenhouse gases a year, with projections of 142 million tons by 2020.

Time concurs with NRDC about what’s driving Alberta’s mining. It’s the U.S. oil addiction — and specifically, one of our principal dealers, ExxonMobil. Canada provides 20 percent of U.S. oil imports, our biggest source. Much of that oil comes from tar sands. Plans are to pipe tar-sands oil to refineries in Minnesota, Ohio, and North Dakota. ExxonMobil is a major force behind the plan. Some $124 billion is expected to be invested in this scheme from 2007 to 2012. That same investment, redirected to solar energy, would put America firmly on the path to an economy free of fossil fuels by mid-century.

As Exxon pushes for the biggest oil boom in North American history — and as the melting Arctic ice opens access to vast new oil and gas fields — it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic and critical fork in the road of human progress. One path offers dazzling new riches for oil companies and provides tantalizing new frontiers for wildcatters. But it leads us to an even deeper addiction to finite fossil fuels and to the quickly approaching point of not return on global climate change. Think of this year’s floods, tornadoes, and wildfires on steroids.

The other road takes us to a future in which our energy is inexhaustible, our economy is secure, drilling and digging have been phased out in favor of green industries and jobs, and global warming is stabilized.

We have very little time to choose. Unfortunately, the allure of black gold and big trucks appears to be taking us down the wrong path.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.