The politics start with whether you say “tar sands” or “oil sands”. Whatever you want to call them, they’re up in Northern Alberta. Observers of American politics will have noticed the Keystone XL project, which would take the sands’ crude oil south to Texas. Northern Gateway, the Canadian version, would carry crude west to Kitimat on the Pacific coast for export to Asia; it’s in the news because the public hearings start next week, with thousands queued up to offer opinions. I’m generally contra, and increasingly optimistic.
Here’s a list of the things that people like me worry about:
The process of digging up the bitumen-and-sand mixture and extracting usable oil appears to be playing hell with the Northern-Alberta environment.
The process is also energy-intensive, such that the carbon loading of a unit of that energy is relatively high.
The damage is not just environmental but social. The work is centered in the city of Fort McMurray; the high concentration of single oilworkers with money and not much to do has predictably led to a nasty set of substance-abuse and prostitution problems.
Shipping crude oil south so that we can buy back the refined products may not be a good economic choice for Canada.
Building a pipeline from Northern Canada to the Southern US involves environmental risks along its route.
Building a pipeline from central Alberta to the Pacific coast involves environmental risks along its route, some of which is across relatively unspoiled wilderness.
Running supertankers into and out of Kitimat involves environmental risks to the coastal region, especially given that it’s navigationally difficult and has lousy, unpredictable weather.
Massive multibillion-dollar capital expenditures aimed at bringing a new stream of heavily carbon-loaded petroleum online seem questionable on energy-policy grounds, in the context of global-warming concerns.
The Case In Favor · You’d think that those in favor of slapping these megapipelines down across the continent would be systematically and forcefully addressing these concerns; arguing that the damage to Northern Alberta isn’t as bad as it looks, that the pipelines’ environmental risks are manageable, that the carbon loading is less than it seems, and that new capital-intensive carbon-intensive petroleum is a sane energy-policy alternative.
But that’s not happening. Up here in BC, the most vocal pro-pipeline anti-Green voice is EthicalOil.org, which ignores all the policy and environmental questions, focusing loudly and unrelentingly on a single issue: that the Green and anti-pipeline forces are [gasp!] receiving foreign funding. Follow that link and you’ll get the flavor pretty quick. The sources of this nefarious funding include well-known malefactors such as the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
This line of argument is finding listeners in high places. Consider the CBC’s Harper warns pipeline hearings could be ‘hijacked’, from which I quote: “Harper told journalists Friday he's heard concerns expressed about the use of foreign money by interveners opposed to an oilsands pipeline”.
And I wonder, are these people crazy? Environmentalism is by definition a global concern; the notion that Green activism, or the money funding it, would stop at the border, is silly. And does anyone think that the (immensely larger amount of) money being used to promote the pipelines is 100% Canadian? Or even that the proponents of Keystone are 100% American? Or that it even matters?
Me, I think that if the other side is reduced to this kind of vacuous brandishing of red herrings, that’s an acknowledgment that they’re dead on the substance of the issues.
Thus I suspect that even with all the money and Tory groupthink behind the pipelines, the politics of getting them built will be an uphill struggle. Which makes me happy.
Now let’s digress a bit.
The Name · My mother, as a recent Albertan Chemistry graduate in the 1950s, published research on petroleum extraction from what back then was unhesitatingly referred to as the Tar Sands. If you’ve seen that shit, what is technically and politely referred to as Bitumen, you’ll understand the usage. Hint: Don’t step in it if you value your footwear.
Since then, in an effort to turn black sticky sand into clean refreshing profits, there’s been a furious re-branding in favor of “oil” not “tar”, ignoring what it looks like when it’s in the ground. In practice, this means that when anyone uses the term “oil sands” you can safely assume they’re in the pay of the pipeline promoters.
The Actual Facts · When you have businesspeople with the scent of billions in their nostrils on one side, and Greens on the other, consensus on verifiable facts tends to be a little thin on the ground. But if you want a backgrounder, Canada's tar sands: Muck and brass in The Economist is not half bad.