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, 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.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Hanan Cohen (Jan 08 2012, at 04:25)

If you search the news for "foreign funding" you will find that attacking NGOs on this issue is a common tactic around the world: here in Israel, across the border in Egypt, Russia and now Canada.

I think that Canadians are not glad to be included in this list.


From: Jim Ancona (Jan 08 2012, at 10:33)

As an American, I'd rather be sending dollars for oil to Canada instead of Saudi Arabia, Iran or Venezuela. Of course that also means dealing with the "messy" democratic processes Tim describes. Overall, I still like the trade-off, though.


From: Eileen Kinley (Jan 08 2012, at 10:33)

One of the other things I worry about is that, AFAIK, the tanker traffic will take place in Orca habitat. In addition to the spill risks, there will be ongoing noise impacts. I suspect the same would be true if more of the tar sands were piped to the Vancouver port instead.

Regarding the 'ethical oil' website and meme - the irony is very thick. As I think the Globe and Mail reported, the originator of the website, Alykhan Velshi, was hired into the Prime Minister's Office mid November. (Having worked for Tory cabinet minister Jason Kenney before ethicaloil) Also ironic is that Ezra Lavant, who 'wrote the book' ethical oil, was a tobacco industry lobbyist. Talking about lack of ethics...

The original claim by the 'ethical oil' folks (including our own Environment Minister) was that most of the oil produced everywhere else in the world is unethical because of the countries' human rights records. This ignores our own human rights abuses in the context of our First Nations. It also ignores the fact that much of Canada continues to get their oil from these 'unethical' countries. Presumably, 'unethical' oil was used during the initial exploration and development of the tar sands.


From: Tony Fisk (Jan 08 2012, at 13:24)

You left out the logistics of maintaining the security of said pipeline.

It gets even more interesting when you look at the political shenanigans going on south of the border.


From: Paul Guinnessy (Jan 09 2012, at 06:59)

You can read more about the physics and environmental impact of Oil Sands in an article we published four years ago.

There were some follow up letters in the September issue I think (although the easiest solution would be to put 'Oil Sands' in the search box).

The article is free for non subscribers to read.


From: David Tkaczyk (Jan 09 2012, at 08:17)

This will most likely be a hot topic for the upcoming U.S. Presidential election where the focus will contrast environmental concerns with the economy and pipeline job creation.


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