Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Revised and Updated Edition

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Greystone Books, 2010 - Business & Economics - 240 pages
2 Reviews
Winner of the prestigious Rachel Carson Environment Book Award.

"Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands... is, in essence, a revolting, blush-making case for Canada to develop integrated energy and environmental regulation suitable for the post-carbon age."--Globe & Mail

Newly updated, Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands is a critical exposť of the world's largest energy project--the Alberta oil sands--that has made Canada one of the worst environmental offenders on earth.

The United States imports the majority of its oil, not from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, but from its neighbour to the north. Canada has one third of the world's oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the Athabasca oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world's largest energy project in Fort McMurray. Much of this dirty oil is being processed in refineries in the Midwest where the proposed Keystone pipeline would run. This out-of-control megaproject is polluting the air, poisoning the water, and destroying boreal forest at a rate almost too rapid to be imagined.

In Tar Sands, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk exposes the disastrous social, political, and environmental impact of the tar sands and argues forcefully for change. Combining extensive scientific research and compelling writing, Nikiforuk takes the reader to Fort McMurray, home to some of the world's largest open-pit mines, and explores this twenty-first-century pioneer town from the high cost of housing to its more serious social ills, complete with rapturous engineers, cut-throat cocaine dealers, aimless bush workers, American evangelicals, and the largest population of homeless people in northern Canada. He also explains that this micro-economy supplies gasoline for 50 percent of Canadian vehicles and 16 percent of U.S. demand. Readers will learn that oil sands:
  • burn more carbon than conventional oil
  • destroy forests and displace woodland caribou
  • spill and poison the water supply and communities downstream
  • drain the Athabasca, the river that feeds Canada's largest watershed
  • contribute to climate change

The book does provide hope, however, and ends with an exploration of possible solutions to the problem. And this updated edition Nikiforuk adds a new afterword, a new appendix on the hidden costs of steam extraction, and a response to the criticism he received for the first edition.

Published in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - LynnB - LibraryThing

Andrew Nikiforuk is a good writer. This book, like others of his I've read, is easy to read and written in an engaging style. It looks at the development of Alberta's tar sands from environmental ... Read full review

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About the author (2010)

Declaration of a Political Emergency

I The world’s oil party is coming to a dramatic close, and Canada has adopted a new geodestiny: providing the United States with bitumen, a low-quality, high-cost substitute.

II Northern Alberta’s bituminous sands, a national treasure, are the globe’s last great remaining oil field. This strategic boreal resource has attracted nearly 60 per cent of all global oil investments. Every major multinational and nationally owned oil company has staked a claim in the tar sands.

III Neither Canada nor Alberta has a rational plan for the tar sands other than full-scale liquidation. Although the tar sands could fund Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy, government has surrendered the fate of the resource to irrational global demands. At forecast rates of production, the richest deposits of bitumen will be exhausted in forty years.

IV Nations become what they produce. Bitumen, the new national staple, is redefining the character and destiny of Canada. Rapid development of the tar sands has created a foreign policy that favours the export of bitumen to the United States and lax immigration standards that champion the import of global bitumen workers. Inadequate environmental rules and monitoring have allowed unsustainable mining to accelerate. Feeble fiscal regimes have enriched multinationals and given Canada a petrodollar that hides the inflationary pressures of peak oil. Canada now calls itself an "emerging energy superpower.” In reality, it is nothing more than a Third World energy supermarket.

V Investment in the tar sands, including pipelines and upgraders, now totals approximately $200 billion.* The tar sands boom has become the world’s largest energy project, the world’s largest construction project, and the world’s largest capital project. No comprehensive assessment of the megaproject’s environmental, economic, or social impact has been done.

VI Thanks to rapid tar sands development, Canada now produces more oil than Texas or Kuwait. Since 2001, Canada has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest single exporter of oil to the United States. Canadian crude now accounts for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. oil imports. If development continues unabated, Canada will soon provide the fading U.S. empire with nearly a third of its oil, while half of Canada’s own citizens remain dependent on insecure supplies from the Middle East.

VII Rapid tar sands development has become a central goal of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (spp), an elite plan to create a North American economic union. U.S. energy policy openly advocates for more pipelines and transmission lines to ease growing shortages in energy supply for U.S. citizens, who currently consume 25 per cent of the world’s oil. Representatives from the Mexican government attended meetings in 2006 in Houston, Texas, about rapid tar sands development. Rapid energy integration will inescapably lead to political integration in a North American union dominated by the United States.

VIII Bitumen is a signature of peak oil and a reminder, as every beer drinker knows, that the glass starts full and ends empty. Half of the world’s cheapest and cleanest oil has been consumed. The reality of depletion now demands the mining of the dirtiest. It takes the excavation of two tons of earth and sand to make one barrel of bitumen.

IX Each barrel of bitumen produces three times as much greenhouse gas as a barrel of conventional oil. The tar sands explain why the Canadian government has spent more than $6 billion on climate-change programs for the last fifteen years and met not one target.

X Bitumen is one of the world’s most water-intensive oil products. Each barrel requires the consumption of three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River, which is part of the world’s third-largest watershed. Every day, Canada exports one million barrels of bitumen to the United States and three million barrels of virtual water.

XI Industry in the tar sands uses as much water every year as a city of two million people. Ninety per cent of this water ends up in the world’s largest impoundments of toxic waste: the tailings ponds. Industrial water monitoring on the Athabasca River is a fraud. Canada has no national water policy and one of the worst records of pollution enforcement of any industrial nation.

XII The tailings ponds, located along the Athabasca River, leak or seep into groundwater. For the last decade, the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan has documented rare cancers.

XIII To mine or steam out bitumen, the tar sands industry burns enough natural gas every day to heat four million homes. At this rate of consumption, the project could severely compromise the nation’s natural gas supplies by 2030. xiv The rapid depletion of natural gas in the tar sands is driving Canada’s so-called nuclear renaissance. Canada may well become the first nation to use nuclear energy not to retire fossil fuels but to accelerate their exploitation.

XV Bitumen development will never be sustainable. The megaproject will eventually destroy or industrialize a forest the size of Florida and diminish the biological diversity and hydrology of the region forever.

XVI Oil hinders democracy and corrupts the political process through the absence of transparent reporting and clear fiscal accounting. Alberta, a classic petrostate, has one of the least accountable governments in Canada as well as the lowest voter turnout.

XVII Without long-term planning and policies, Canada and Alberta will fail to secure reliable energy supplies for Canadians, to develop alternative energy sources for the country, or to create valuable resource funds for the future. Unlike the governments of Norway and Alaska, the government of Canada stands to leave its citizens a singular legacy of exponential neglect and watershed destruction.

XVIII A business-as-usual case for the tar sands will change Canada forever. It will enrich a few powerful companies, hollow out the economy, destroy the world’s third-largest watershed, industrialize nearly one-quarter of Alberta’s landscape, consume the last of the nation’s natural gas supplies, and erode Canadian sovereignty.

XIX The destructiveness of the tar sands is not inevitable. But Canadians and Albertans have become too tolerant of the politicians who compromise the nation’s energy security as well as the next generation’s future. Instead of liquidating the tar sands for global interests, Canada can use the resource for transition to a lowcarbon economy.

XX Every Canadian who drives a car is part of this political emergency. And every Canadian can be part of the solution.

XXI The real work of transforming Canada’s fossil fuel-dependent economy will not be big and glamorous. It will be humbling, yet rewarding. Our tasks, as social critic Wendell Berry has noted, "will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”

XXII We must begin today.

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