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How far are we willing to go for Canada’s ‘tar sands’ oil?

Mining trucks carry loads of oil-laden sand at the Albian Sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada, in August 2005. Photo: AP/Jeff McIntosh

Hearing the term “tar sands” for the first time, one is likely to picture balls of sticky oil washed up on Pensacola’s beaches last summer. It’s an image all too familiar after BP’s 2010 oil disaster and the constant stream of harrowing reports from the Gulf of Mexico. Another version of that mess belongs to the future, though, and poses big questions for citizens and leaders in business and government.

Geology defines a tar sand as a shallow deposit of petroleum mixed with sand, a kind of oil so costly to mine in terms of energy and water usage that engineers have traditionally considered it too uneconomical to exploit. But with known oil reserves waning worldwide and the cost of crude on the rise, the world’s largest known tar sands deposit, in western Canada, is now being mined in earnest. Between four and six barrels of water are used to produce one barrel of oil this way, only a tiny fraction of which is returned to the river.

Like hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” the controversial technique of drilling for natural gas now familiar to residents of New York and Pennsylvania, the impacts in Alberta are going to be long term. While fracking threatens to permanently ruin water tables in the East to access an ephemeral fuel supply, large areas of Alberta’s boreal forests, home to a huge number of North America’s migratory songbirds and waterfowl as well as Woodland Caribou, will be lost as the trees are logged off to reach the shallow deposits. The loss of so many trees is also decried from a climate change standpoint, as this forest is a major carbon sink.

Why this concerns many people is simple: we buy that tar sands oil. Canada is America’s number one source for imported oil, and tar sands crude accounts for up to half of that supply.

And like fracking, a reliance on the tar sands begs some critical questions: to what lengths are we willing to go to ensure that Americans continue to enjoy a lifestyle built on choice and easy mobility? Will companies move to exploit a large tar sands deposit in Utah, too? And, if so, where in that desert landscape will the enormous amount of water needed to mine it come from?

Two key critics of mining in the Alberta tar sands are authors Rick Bass and David James Duncan. Upon hearing that oil companies plan to truck gigantic factory components the size of the Statue of Liberty to Alberta through their wild Northwestern U.S. backyard and near treasures like Glacier National Park, the authors spent five weeks last fall writing a book-length response.

An example of a mega-load trailer. This particular load was destined for Billings, Montana, in September 2010. Photo: Terry Gray

Half essay and half novella, “The Heart of the Monster” is a key text for understanding why the “heavy haul” has aroused so much opposition in Idaho and Montana. What happens if these loads buckle roads or bridges that were not engineered to hold such a weight? How will the gargantuan machines be salvaged from a montane river gorge if swept off the highway by an avalanche? And how will the monster trucks negotiate numerous hairpin turns along the mountainous route?

The book argues that the so-called mega-loads should not be allowed to cross the Northwest, not just because of local public safety and aesthetic considerations, but as part of an effort to stall exploitation of the tar sands. Citizens have been lining the roadsides along the route to voice their objections, and the groundswell looks certain to build as the massive convoys roll nearer Missoula this month. The novella’s protagonist utters the hope that “Montana will become Imperial Oil’s Afghanistan, their Viet Nam.”

Whether or not activists can conjure a quagmire of such proportion, it’s clear that the ongoing climate and landscape impacts of mining in the tar sands will be felt across the continent, and perhaps most acutely in the U.S. by communities adjacent to new pipelines being proposed by the Canadian company Enbridge to carry oil south from Alberta. David James Duncan, featured in an upcoming episode of the PBS series “Nature” (“Salmon: Running the Gauntlet,“ May 1, 2011), put it this way when I interviewed him recently:

“As the tar sands are developed, thousands of miles of Enbridge pipelines will cross 32 U.S. states and all 10 Canadian provinces, following or crisscrossing many of the most sensitive rivers, wildlife areas, farmlands, agricultural aquifers, and steelhead and salmon sanctuaries in North America … Enbridge  pipelines have ruptured or leaked 57 times in the last year alone, including an 840,000 gallon spill [in Michigan] that decimated biotic life and property values along the Kalamazoo River down to Lake Michigan.”

The reason for all those accidents? Tar sands oil is much more corrosive than normal crude, and also thicker – pipelines that carry it use high temperature and pressure regimes to help it flow.  A much longer pipeline almost certainly means a greater chance of spills, potentially bringing the impacts of our nation’s reliance on the Alberta tar sands to our own neighborhoods, and sooner than we may think.

— — —

There will be a live online discussion with “The Heart of the Monster” authors Rick Bass and David James Duncan Tuesday, March 1, at 7 p.m. ET.

Erik Hoffner is outreach coordinator for Orion magazine and a freelance photojournalist.

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