America's Other Foreign Oil: Seeing Canada's Tar Sands Up Close

Most Americans recognize that our love affair with the automobile--and the oil addiction that comes with it--has implications for our foreign policy and military commitments in the Middle East. What is less well understood are the environmental and human consequences of feeding our insatiable appetite with fuel from closer to home: Canada.

America accounts for 75 percent of Canada's tar sands oil exports. So last week I traveled to Alberta to see first-hand the tar sands oil production operations in Fort McMurray

I came to Fort McMurray from a meeting in Winnipeg about how climate change is altering the Arctic, so I was highly sensitized already to the impact of U.S. energy policies on Canada's Arctic. But here was my chance to see what those same policies were doing to the boreal forest, a huge swath of green that stretches across Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic and overlays Alberta's tar sands.

What Looks Vast At First Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

What struck me most visiting the tar sands oil operations is the SCALE. 

When I flew in from the south, I passed over undulating spruce fir forests, a sea of green, interspersed with glimmers of blue rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands as far as the eye can see. Then stretching to the north, east, and west, the green abruptly vanishes, replaced with a scarred industrial landscape. (See some powerful photos in this National Geographic feature.)

From the air, giant trucks hauling dirt seemed like toy trucks in a sand box. But when you stand next to them in the maintenance shop, they are colossal, as tall as a four- or five-story building.

Not only does the whole process move huge amounts of sand, but it also consumes enormous volumes of heated water to separate the oil from the sand. All that water gets pulled out of the Athabasca River, which flows right through the center of all of this.

That heated water is then dumped into an ever-increasing number of so-called tailing ponds--which are really the size of lakes--to begin a process of settling out the clay and sand and recycling the water to be used again.

The scale of even just one of these facilities is massive. We visited Suncor, the oldest operator in the region. Down on the ground, their operations seemed vast, but in a subsequent flyover, we realized what we saw on land was just the tip of the iceberg. 

And the facilities we saw are just a small glimpse at what is planned. In a visit to the Mikisew Cree First Nation's Government and Industry Relations Committee, we saw a map of tar sands leases granted so far by the Alberta government. It was mind blowing.  Suncors' facility was a small square on a vast checkerboard of multi-colored leases showing you what is to come.

Government Asleep at the Wheel

The map hinted at another tar sands reality: oversight from the federal and provincial governments is woefully inadequate. 

Certainly this is true in the environmental arena. We are accustomed to the federal government issuing standards and regulations, and then enforcing them. I came to understand through conversations with colleagues from the Pembina Institute, journalists who had studied the issue, representatives of First Nations, and local government officials in Fort McMurray that this just doesn't seem to exist. There are plenty of working groups and collaborative committees on air and water, but actual independent review and monitoring seem sorely lacking.

We Must Treat the Addiction at Its Source: America

Throughout my travels in Fort McMurray, I couldn't escape the awareness that we in the United States are totally culpable for this. Tar sands oil is only economically viable because America has a huge appetite for oil.  The operations that we visited are the industry's response to servicing that addiction. 

Because all commodities are global these days, perhaps oil most of all, it's easy for us to fill the tank and not think about where the oil comes from.  After the Iraq War, we gave it more thought, and some believe that obtaining a generous supply from Canada is a more secure way to go. But from an environmental perspective there are three serious consequences which make this strategy untenable:

  1. Tar sands oil development devours critical landscapes. The boreal forest is a carbon sink, a repository of biodiversity, and a reservoir of water and fiber. And yet a huge swath of forest in Alberta and potentially Saskatchewan will disappear as a result of our oil addiction. Perhaps some areas will be replanted, but the natural function of these forests in their current state will not be revived, and the entire concept of a wild boreal forest will be lost.
  2. The scale of these industrial activities will significantly damage air and water quality in the region, and thus endanger human health. Already large quantities of diesel, particulates, and PAH emissions have been recorded. Yet monitoring is currently minimal and the cumulative impacts of the scale of future operations is unknown.  
  3. Tar sands oil production releases 3 times the amount of carbon than lighter crude.  While I was in Alberta, the provincial government released two tar sands reports to great media fanfare. The reports claimed that the greenhouse gas emissions of the best tar sands operations are only slightly worse than the dirtiest conventional fuels coming from Nigeria and Venezuela. You know you are fighting an uphill battle when these are the most positive findings you can generate. (See my colleagues' in depth analysis of the studies here.)

Cleaner, More Sustainable Options Exist

Developing tar sands oil will not take us down a sustainable or climate friendly pathway. We have cleaner, more sustainable options for powering our cars. Instead of devouring the boreal forest and spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the air, we can improve the fuel efficiency of our cars and shift to plug-in hybrids.

So how do we get there?

We start with those of us in the United States really understanding where our addiction takes us. NRDC will continue our work to make that more broadly known.

We also need to develop a transportation policy that addresses the consequences of that addiction. That includes fuel efficient cars, increased public transit options, smarter growth requiring less car travel, and cleaner, low-carbon fuels. NRDC is trying to advance all of these solutions through the Senate climate bill, transportation legislation, and policies in many states including New York, California, and Illinois.

And finally, Canada needs stronger environmental and global warming policies too.  Their need for a sound energy policy is as great as ours.  We are truly symbiotic in our energy relationship, and NRDC will look for opportunities to promote cleaner policies in Canada with colleagues such as Canada's Environmental Defence and Pembina.