Environmental Consequences Are Ignored, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (June 7, 2006) -- The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer will feature a sprawling exhibit touting the mining of oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, a marked departure from the festival's traditional celebration of culture and diversity, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

NRDC has expressed its concern to the Smithsonian that the industry-sponsored exhibit will not present a complete picture of the mining practice or its devastating environmental consequences. The exhibit is being sponsored by the Alberta provincial government and many of Canada's biggest energy companies, whose champions also will be in Washington around the time of the annual festival to promote tar sands on Capitol Hill, at the State Department and in at least one "energy forum" at the Canadian Embassy.

Although still in its infancy, the mining of tar sands already is Canada's single-largest contribution to global warming. The Alberta tar sands are found under a region of boreal forest and wetlands larger than the state of Florida. Tar sands is a mixture of 85 percent sand, clay and silt; 5 percent water; and 10 percent bitumen -- a tar-like substance that can be converted to oil. Producing oil from the tar sands generates 2.5 times as much heat-trapping gases as conventional oil production. Mining and drilling of the heavy oil also threatens to contaminate ground water and turn the boreal forest and wetlands into wastelands.

"The Folklife Festival on our national mall has never been a crass trade show or business expo, and it should not become one now," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an NRDC attorney and director of the organization's Canada projects. "If the show must go on, the public deserves to learn the full story about tar sands."

The High Price of Tar Sands Oil

The world's thirst for oil is leading to an unprecedented mining and drilling of the heavy oil, or bitumen, in the tar sands of Alberta's boreal forest in Canada, a destructive practice that looms as an environmental catastrophe of widespread proportions.

Today, most tar sands oil production results in vast open-pit mines, some as large as three miles wide and 200 feet deep. Only a small fraction of bitumen deposits are close enough to the surface to be mined. The bulk of the established reserves (81 percent) are deeper and must be extracted by injecting high-pressure steam into the ground to soften the bitumen so it can be piped out.

Such reserves make Canada second in the world in oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia. Already, production of oil from Alberta's tar sands has more than doubled, to approximately 1.1 million barrels daily from 1995 to 2004. And that expansion is projected to reach as much as 4.4 million barrels per day by 2015, according to a new study by the Canadian National Energy Board.

The Cost of Tar Sands: Climate Change, Boreal Forest Destruction, and Troubled Waters

The petroleum industry insists that it is minimizing its footprint in the boreal. But the facts tell a different story.

  • Climate Change: Because of the massive amounts of energy needed to extract, upgrade and refine the oil, tar sands oil production generates more global-warming gases than conventional oil production. In 2003, tar sands production yielded 25.2 megatons of greenhouse gases -- more than similar emissions from all the cars in the state of Maryland that year. And tar sands-related pollutants are projected to more than quadruple by 2015-to between 108 and 126 megatons.

  • Boreal Forest and Wetlands: "Tar sands" is a misleading name for a region that is still 96 percent undisturbed boreal including forests and wetlands. But one tar sands drilling complex alone may require hundreds of wells, many miles of access roads and an extensive, above-ground pipeline system. Destruction of such large regions of boreal forest also would have far-reaching consequences throughout North America. The boreal is a significant carbon storehouse. It is the breeding ground for 30 percent of North America's songbirds and 40 percent of its waterfowl. And it is home to many species sensitive to industrial development, including caribou and lynx. Open pit mining already has turned boreal forests into wastelands filled with polluted waters and devoid of wildlife. Logging associated with tar sands oil production also threatens the mature forest stands that millions of migrating birds rely on to build nests and raise their young.

  • Mackenzie Valley: The pristine Mackenzie Valley in Canada's Northwest Territories would be decimated by an explosion in tar sands development. Home to grizzly bear, caribou and the breeding ground for many migratory birds, the valley is being threatened by industry proposals to build hundreds of miles of pipeline for natural gas that would be used to fuel the tar sands.

Better Alternatives Already Are Available

We already have the technology and the know-how to move our economy beyond oil and reduce global warming pollution -- safely and affordably -- starting right now.

Better technology in our cars and trucks, and renewable energy sources like wind, solar and biofuels will reduce our oil dependence, cut emissions and create a new generation of American jobs.

What we now need is leadership-leadership to bring government, industry and agriculture to the table to unleash the power of American ingenuity to make our world safer, cleaner and more prosperous.