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Review: Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
By Andrew Nikiforuk
214 pp. Greystone Books – Mar. 2009. $15.95.

If you’ve been following energy news with a discerning eye, then you already know better than to buy into all the hype about the Canadian tar sands. Far from being a panacea for declining supplies of conventional oil, the sands could never contribute more than a proverbial drop in the bucket to daily world oil production. And even achieving this modest rate of production would require such staggering quantities of water, natural gas and boreal forestland as to leave Alberta resembling “a third-rate golf course in the Sudan” before the bulk of the sands’ 175 billion barrels had ever been produced.

The quote comes from Andrew Nikiforuk’s new book Tar Sands, a powerful, eloquent litany of horrors associated with North America’s frenzied dash toward tar sands bitumen as its next fuel of choice. An investigative journalist of formidable caliber, Nikiforuk illustrates how the tar sands’ woeful inability to sustain our cheap-oil-addicted lifestyle is only one in a long list of reasons why their unchecked exploitation must be stopped immediately.

A few of the others include soaring greenhouse gas emissions, colossal ponds of toxic waste that are known to leak, the spike in health problems that has been seen in communities downstream from these leaking ponds and efforts to cover up these health problems by governments that have prostituted themselves to the tar sands lobby. There’s also the unbelievable squalor, crime and corruption that seethe through the tar sands center of Fort McMurray, where a burgeoning population of transient workers seeks to make a quick buck in the sands, but not to give anything back to the community.

A longtime resident of Calgary, Alberta, Nikiforuk has witnessed firsthand this “human ecosystem wastage” visited upon his province by frantic tar sands development. Over the past decade, he has seen Alberta’s social and economic landscape change “practically beyond recognition,” as the bulk of the world’s multinational oil companies have flocked there to create the world’s largest capital project, having invested a combined $200 billion to date. The lax Albertan government, composed as it is of what Nikiforuk calls “petropoliticians,” has approved nearly 100 proposed tar sands projects so far.

This immense mega-project has propelled Canada into first place in terms of exports of oil to the United States, easily eclipsing Mexico and Saudi Arabia. And the “dirty oil” derived from its sands, while amounting to only a drop in the global oil bucket, nonetheless accounts for nearly 20 percent of America’s fuel. These facts certainly come as a surprise to many Americans; but average Canadians, Nikiforuk contends, are not much savvier about the increasing significance of their own filthy fuel.

As for the Canadian and Albertan governments, Nikiforuk argues that they are flying blind, with no plans for bitumen development beyond simply allowing oil companies to liquidate it as quickly as possible, and obediently fulfilling their obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to keep the U.S. economy supplied with all the oil it needs, at any cost. Nikiforuk is quick to point out that Canada would not fare nearly as well as the United States would during an oil shortage, since, unlike most other industrialized nations, it does not have a strategic petroleum reserve for emergencies (he wagers that it’s probably the only advanced nation without such a reserve).

Tar Sands follows a mosaic structure, with each successive chapter painting a portrait of some different ill associated with the sands. Nikiforuk is a first-rate researcher, and he really gets his hands dirty with government documents, conference papers, petitions and even a master’s thesis, in addition to the easy sources of books, news clippings and journal articles. The chapters have titles like “The Ponds,” “Carbon: A Wedding and a Funeral” and “The Money”; and there’s no disputing the concentrated grip of their diatribes.

I found “The Ponds” to be by far the most poignant and pointed. It deals with the huge ponds of toxic waste that have resulted from the water-intensive process of producing bitumen from the sands. Every passing day brings enough new toxic tailings to fill 720 Olympic pools. So far, oil companies’ answer to containing these tailings has been to build massive aboveground ponds using dirt excavated during the mountaintop removal phase of bitumen production. A dozen ponds now stretch along either side of the Athabasca River, towering 270 feet above the forest floor, easily visible from space and looking like some kind of weird pyramids, to borrow Nikiforuk’s simile.

The ponds, which Nikiforuk calls “Canada’s greatest, most cancerous liability,” reek like filling stations, freeze only in the bitterest cold and swarm with carcinogens. The toxins are known to leak into groundwater and the Athabasca River, and toxic wetlands surround most ponds. A physician in one downstream community noted an inexplicable surge in health problems—including an extremely rare, painful cancer that he’s since diagnosed several times—in his patients. When he dared to ask the government to undertake a full study into these ailments, he found himself the victim of a vicious career assassination.

Thousands of geese, ducks and shorebirds die in the ponds every year, as do many deer, beaver and moose. It’s been estimated that the ponds could be toxic for another thousand years; and Nikiforuk notes that long before then an earthquake or torrential rainstorm could easily breech their walls, making for an environmental catastrophe that would beggar description. And, as if all these horrors weren’t enough, Nikiforuk points out that if tar sands development continues unabated, the number of square miles that the ponds occupy will increase by more than three and a half times, to 85 square miles, over the next decade.

This chapter is, I believe, Nikiforuk at his most enterprising, scintillating and rightly caustic and outraged. However, the subsequent chapters exposing urban-China levels of air pollution, gross governmental neglect and secretiveness, the “fiction” of toxic wetlands reclamation, the unproven nature of carbon burial, the scandal of missing tar sands royalties and Canada’s rising status as a leading carbon dioxide emitter are only slightly less compelling.

Nikiforuk also elucidates the great harm done by in situ (or in place) mining operations. This mining technique is used when the bitumen is buried too deep underground to be accessed through mountaintop removal, which is most of the time. In situ projects involve melting the bitumen into a liquid that can be pumped to the surface. They’re especially harmful because of their voracious consumption of water and natural gas, as well as the supporting infrastructure of roads, seismic lines and pipelines that industrializes forestland to the point of being uninhabitable for much wildlife.

Tar Sands concludes with twelve sensible “steps to energy sanity.” Above all, these recommendations stress the need to admit that cheap oil is over, to limit tar sands production rather than expanding it and to use tar sands energy to move beyond our oil dependence, not to cling to it. Nikiforuk observes that since only 3 percent of the bitumen contained in the tar sands has been produced so far, there’s still great potential for catastrophe if we choose the wrong path.

Being written from a Canadian perspective, Tar Sands speaks chiefly to Canadians and the insane role into which they’ve unwittingly been duped as America’s supposed energy savior. But it is nonetheless a vital read for North Americans of any stripe who doubt the need to decrease our oil consumption as rapidly as possible.

Editorial Notes: Frank Kaminski is a member of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

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