Gulf spill is a wake-up call to stop dirty, dangerous and expensive fuels such as tar sands oil

The BP deep oil rig accident in the Gulf Coast is a tragic example of the very high dangers and costs of going after fuels that in the past we considered too difficult, dangerous or expensive to access. I have been shocked to see a series of articles over the past week almost gloating that Gulf oil spill “takes the heat off” the equally dirty and dangerous Canadian tar sands oil. Although one article acknowledges that “to appear triumphalist in the face of the calamity in the Gulf would be insensitive,” another stated on behalf of the tar sands industry that “while it's tough to take advantage of a competitor knocked to the canvas, it's time to seize the moment.” Even Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has been in D.C. this week touting his province’s tar sands oil as a safer alternative to deep offshore wells. This is exactly the wrong lesson to take from the BP oil spill. The right lesson is that we need to end our addiction to fossil fuels so that this type of accident and the dangers of the climate change that fossil fuels bring will be a thing of our past.

We are still groping to understand the impacts in terms of lives, health, local economies, and wildlife of the Gulf oil spill. Yet the daily harm and potential for serious accidents is there in all of the newer efforts of the fossil fuel industry to go after harder to access fuels. Canadian tar sands leak 2.74 million gallons  of toxic tailings waste every single day into the vast Athabasca watershed. The tar sands produce miles and miles of toxic ponds that are growing and leaking into the natural environment, home to millions of migratory birds, indigenous communities and one of the world’s largest remaining freshwater supplies.

Even more, those making comparisons between the Gulf oil spill and tar sands imply that pipelines overland are safe – and that leaks are easily remedied. Tell that to farmers in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. What these comparisons do not take into account is that the tar sands pipelines from Canada will cross America’s heartland bringing the potential of contamination to low-lying aquifers on which our farmers depend.  For example, the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would bring bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf Coast through fragile sand hills over the Ogallala Aquifer. This is one of the worst possible areas to run such infrastructure as any leaks would be quickly absorbed like a sponge, contaminating the drinking water and agricultural irrigation waters in America’s heartland from South Dakota to Texas.  The Ogallala Aquifer is already imperiled by being overused and many researchers are concerned it will dry up in coming decades, threatening drinking supplies for many states. The toxics spilling from a tar sands pipeline could be devastating. Local landowners are very concerned that leaks can occur and not be noticed for days. Just in April, an Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota had a leak and reportedly did not realize it until local fire crews reported it to the company.

The newer tar sands pipelines are all high-pressure pipelines meant to transport corrosive and dirty bitumen. They have all asked for waivers of safety standards that allow them to use less steel to save costs. In the United States, we are increasing our reliance on Canadian tar sands oil seemingly without regard for the very real dangers. With tar sands production currently at roughly 1.3 million bpd, roughly 800,000 bpd is imported by the United States. The rest stays in Canada with no other available market. Three new pipelines are underway to bring more dirty tar sands oil to the United States: TransCanada Keystone at almost 600,000 bpd capacity, Enbridge Alberta Clipper at roughly another 800,000 bpd capacity and the newly proposed TransCanada Keystone XL with eventual capacity of roughly 900,000 bpd. These new pipelines will be responsible for expansion of tar sands production in Canada and for devastating harm in Canada and in the United States.

The expansion of raw bitumen coming into the United States also means expansion of upgrading capacity of refineries in the United States – and expansion of greenhouse gas emission, air pollution and water pollution. Already EPA is cracking down, having cited the BP Whiting tar sands refining operation for violations of the Clean Air Act and objecting to the Indiana permit for expansion to take tar sands oil at the BP Whiting facilities as not dealing adequately with air pollution.

We have written many times before about the higher greenhouse gas emissions from the production of tar sands oil– as much as 3 times that of conventional oil production and roughly 20% higher from well to wheels. The threat to our climate from a continued production and use of fossil fuels is one that is already being felt in the United States  and in Canada.

The environmental and health problems with extraction in Canada are well documented and growing. Even beyond the international outcry raised by a single incident of 1,600 ducks dying after landing on a tar sands mine waste pond in Canada, Environmental Defence Canada has documented every-day business-as-usual leakage of 1 billion gallons per year  (or 2.74 million gallons per day) of poisonous waste from the tar sands tailings ponds. And a recent study found that industry deposited enough bitumen on the snow to create a 5,000 barrel a year oil spill on the Athabasca River. A rupture of a tailings pond into the Athabasca River would devastate a watershed that reaches all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Downstream from the tar sands mines, the community of Ft. Chipewyan is concerned about unusually high rates of cancers normally linked to petroleum pollution. My colleague Dr. Solomon who is currently helping communities in the Gulf Coast, was just visiting in Ft. Chipewyan and has written about the community concerns with their high cancer rates calling it “the other oil disaster.”

Yet oil companies are putting dirty, dangerous and expensive sources of fuel such as tar sands oil forward as a “transition” fuel to the clean energy economy. This is a wrong choice given the very real risks and liabilities of tar sands oil. Alberta has an active public relations campaign to promote its tar sands oil deposits instead of taking action to clean them up. Tar sands promoters use the argument of energy security, claiming that Canadian oil is safe oil. This is a false security. The truth is that we do not need these dangerous new forms of fuel. In a world where climate security is one of our greatest threats, we gain energy security when we stop being dependent on oil. We have the technology and know-how to move straight to better transportation solutions by increasing fuel efficiency, reducing miles driven, and rapidly transitioning to environmentally sustainable low-carbon fuels.  The best energy, climate and economic security is home-grown, clean energy.