The sludge and the slurry


Last in a three-part series on modern fossil fuel-mining calamities.

Tar sands is really not the right name for the stuff. “Oil sands” is the proper term. Covering 54,000 square miles of Canada — mostly under the boreal forests of northeast Alberta — vast sand deposits ooze with bitumen, an extremely dense crude. For years, oil sands have reminded folks of tar, a stinky, sticky byproduct of processing coal. But bituminous sands hold petroleum, in its stinkiest, stickiest form.

Oil sands occur in 23 countries, but Canada contains over 70 percent of the planet’s deposits. Bitumen is far more energy-intensive to process than conventional oil. It must be thinned for transport or it will not flow. The industry uses a billion cubic feet of natural gas daily processing this crud into synthetic crude.

Greenpeace claims that 40 million tons of carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere each year from oil sands production. The International Energy Agency holds that gasoline made from oil sands is 22 percent dirtier to combust. The European Union is considering labeling oil sands crude “Highly Polluting.” Why did Canada, which initially ratified the Kyoto Protocol, withdraw from the global climate treaty in 2011? Well, having vowed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent, Canada’s overall contribution to global warming instead rose 24 percent. A government researcher states: “The footprint of the (sands) industry is much bigger than anyone thought.”

Canadian citizens are increasingly resisting this deadly juggernaut. And for good reason: the Oxford Journals of Toxicological Sciences report high levels of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, lead, mercury, naphthenic acid and vanadium in oil sands wastewater. (And that’s only half the list.) In 2006, moose in the boreal forest turned up with 453 times the acceptable arsenic in their bloodstreams.

A 2007 University of Alberta study found high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — extremely carcinogenic mutagens — in deformed aquatic species downstream from the mines. Just this month, Queens University researchers revealed PAHs are concentrating in sediments of Lake Athabasca to levels up to 23 times greater than those deposited naturally before 1960.

In 2011, Reuters reported unusually high cancer rates among Athabascan Natives at nearby Fort Chipewyan. Then there are the oil spills. Enbridge pipelines (the chief pumped-transport firm) spring a leak on average every six days. You may recall 2010 when an Enbridge pipe dumped 6.3 million liters of bitumen slurry into the Kalamazoo River, swamping entire Michigan neighborhoods feet-deep in toxic black sludge.

The First Nations Idle No More movement is mobilizing Canadians coast to coast. Native tribes of the far north have a constitutional right to be consulted on all matters concerning their lands and resources. Tribal opinions and decisions are supposed to carry extra weight with the government in Ottawa. But the opposite is true under the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Extraordinarily friendly to Canada’s mining interests, Harper pushes hard for expanded oil sands development and for pipelines laid in all directions to distant ports. The aim is the export of sands oil ’round the globe. Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians leader, decries “the snakes and ladders board game that will take tar sands oil to all corners of the Earth. They are pumping out bitumen — the dirtiest of all oil — faster than they can sell it.”

U.S. citizens are locked in a fight to stop Enbridge’s Keystone XL pipeline – 1,661 miles across six states — aimed solely at Texas Gulf ports. But most disturbing is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, crossing 700 torturous miles of British Columbia and 1,000 rivers and streams to reach an imaginary super-tanker terminal far up the rugged fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest. The oil would ship to Asian markets — with luck. And oil sands production could increase by 30 percent!

Yearly, 200 tankers, 700 feet long, would have to negotiate a constricted labyrinth of inland waterways fraught with rain-shrouded isles and currently teeming with salmon, sea lions and whales the size of a Greyhound bus. Tempestuous storms race through this wilderness and have historically sunk stray ships. That’s why 18 First Nations tribes are constructing permanent camps along the pipeline’s route, determined to stop the project.

On Dec. 14, Harper managed to force Bill C-45 through Parliament, stripping the country of much of its environmental protections, while gutting First Nations’ rights of consultation. That same day, Attawapisket Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike, demanding a meeting with the prime minister and the crown representative.

Spence’s fast was only just broken this Tuesday, with a vow to continue the First Nations’ fight for environmental justice. Meanwhile, Harper continues attacking those resisting his plans for the oil sands: He has slashed government monitoring and defunded research, including the world’s leading freshwater lakes laboratory. He has muzzled climate scientists and disbanded a National Round Table on Environment and Economy.

After the long, systematic blocking of public participation in decisions concerning fossil fuels, folks are making a fuss. “Flash mobs” suddenly assemble in shopping malls, colorfully protesting the rape and pillage of the Canadian interior. After all, the mining of Canada’s bitumen brings one of the lowest mineral royalties in the world back to public coffers.

It is high time for all to take a firm stand for a good Earth for our grandchildren — on to the Seventh Generation. Or greed will lay waste to their world.

Additional sources: Ottawa Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Chicago Daily Herald,, Toronto Star, Oil Change International, National Academy of Sciences