One of the most overlooked environmental threats in North America during the past half-decade has been the massive tar sands project in Alberta, Canada. Although the project involves the clear-cutting of a pristine forest the size of Florida, it has received little attention in the United States. But that's starting to change this week thanks to activists from around the country, including Northern California, who are currently holding a sit-in at the White House. The demonstrators are protesting a plan by the Obama administration that would greatly expand the tar sands oil extraction process — known as the dirtiest in the world.
The US State Department is poised to green-light a proposal to build a gigantic web of pipelines across North America, connecting the tar sands development in Alberta to markets and refineries throughout the United States. The pipelines are expected to dramatically increase demand for oil produced from tar sands, while fostering the growth of the process. And the stakes are huge: Canada is sitting atop an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil in tar sands — second only to Saudi Arabia's known petroleum reserves.
Many environmentalists fear that the expansion of tar sands oil extraction will mark a tipping point in terms of climate change. NASA climatologist James Hansen recently wrote that if tar sands development greatly increases, it's "game over" for the fight against global warming. "The tar sands of Canada constitute one of our planet's greatest threats," Hansen wrote. "They are a double-barrelled threat. First, producing oil from tar sands emits two-to-three times the global warming pollution of conventional oil. But the process also diminishes one of the best carbon-reduction tools on the planet: Canada's Boreal Forest."
To meet demand from the United States, the Canadian government estimates that it will need to double its current tar sands production over the next decade to more than 1.8 million barrels of oil a day. And the environmental destruction from tar sands, as Gasland director Josh Fox recently pointed out, will blow your mind:
Once forests are cut down, extracting oil trapped in tar sands resembles strip mining, and leaves a moonscape akin to Tolkien's Mordor. The tar sands are then squeezed, and boiled to remove the oil. The process uses incredible amounts of water — about the same as a city with 2 million people. The wastewater is then left in giant pits so large they can be seen from space.
The process also uses tremendous amounts of energy. In 2007 alone, the Alberta tar sands development used 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. Not surprisingly, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted is astonishing: 36 million tons of carbon dioxide a day, the equivalent of 1.3 million cars.
Last weekend, The New York Times editorialized against the proposed pipelines, and as of Monday, several hundred protesters, led by environmental author Bill McKibben, had been arrested at the White House sit-in. It's scheduled to last through September 3.