Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Crisis of Canadian Gunk
distributed 8/5/11 - ©2011

The tar sands in Canada are an "unconventional" energy source -- very unconventional. It is asinine and irresponsible to open those deposits of bitumen to more extensive extraction -- but that production is real and expanding.

The plans to dig up and ship vast quantities of this gunk can only be considered reasonable because we have become numb to the devastation caused by our addiction to fossil fuels, and because we have become fixated with "the economy" and our privileged way of life to the exclusion of all other realities.

This fall, President Obama will decide whether to approve a permit for a new pipeline to carry that crud from Canada to refineries in Texas. At the end of today's Notes, I will point you toward multiple ways that you can call on him to deny that permit. But first, consider what is involved.

+     +     +     +     +

In the northern part of Alberta, there is a vast area where a tar-like substance called bitumen is layered near the surface of the ground. Those deposits have been described as about the size of Florida or Great Britain -- a huge area. Above the bitumen, there have been rich boreal forests, lakes and rivers. Those forests and waterways are destroyed in the mining of tar sands.

Bitumen is not oil. It is a mix of sand and tar that requires extensive processing, and even then what emerges is considered "synthetic crude." It is so hard to process and it contains so little energy that it was not considered a rational source for fuel until conventional supplies of oil became scarce and expensive.

You can't drill a well and pump out bitumen -- at least not in the traditional way. This is one of the reasons that getting this "unconventional" oil is so destructive.

The usual approach to extracting the stuff is by strip mining it. Rip off the forests, push aside the dirt, and dredge out the glop. Chevron -- an oil company that seems to be terribly proud of the big equipment they use to do this work -- says that they need to dig up "more than two tons of oil sands to produce one barrel -- 42 gallons -- of usable crude." If you are horrified at "mountain top removal" for coal mining in Appalachia, you may be even more horrified at the widespread excavation, the inadequate reclamation, and the pollution of lakes and rivers in Canada. Remember -- these sands underlie an area the size of Florida.

Two years ago, National Geographic Magazine did a story, Scraping Bottom, about the oil sands in Canada. The text of the article gives insights into the mining process, as well as the economics and politics of this industry. As is always the case with National Geographic, their photo journalist provides images of the destruction that are far more visceral than the words. The lead photo of the on-line article is vivid.

In areas where the sands are too deep to dig up, wells are drilled and steam is injected to melt the tar enough so that it can be sucked out. It takes enormous amounts of energy to create that steam. Right now, natural gas is burned to create the steam. That's right -- a relatively clean energy source is used inefficiently to extract a dirtier form of fuel.

A fascinating report from the British financial journal Money Week questions whether the Canadian sands can deliver as their boosters promise. Among the troubling factors, the amount of natural gas needed to process the tar, whether with injected steam or heating water to separate the strip mined sands, will use about 1/5 of all Canadian gas production, an utterly unrealistic diversion of precious gas. To avoid burning so much gas, it has been proposed that nuclear plants could be used to create that hot water. Yes -- they are considering using another deeply flawed energy source to create dirty oil.

It takes the energy equivalent of about one barrel of oil to produce three barrels of synthetic crude from the tar sands. One hundred years ago, when our society first started to get hooked on cheap oil, wells had an "energy returned on energy invested" ratio of 100-to-1 or even 300-to-1. That commercial production is now happening at a 3-to-1 level shows how desperate we are to sustain our oil addiction. The amount of energy required to produce this glop is one of the reasons why oil from tar sands has a significantly higher climate change impact than conventional oil. All that dredging and steaming has to be taken into account.

It also takes about three barrels of water to produce a barrel of oil. That waste water is highly polluted. If you're concerned about the water use and water pollution from the "fracking" of wells, then the water issues around tar sands will be painfully familiar to you.

Even after processing, the goop that is extracted from tar sands is too gooey to push through a pipeline. It has to be thinned, often with the condensate from natural gas wells. By this point, you won't be surprised to hear that the condensate has to be shipped in. The August, 2011, National Geographic has a short article, Pipeline Through Paradise, where I first heard about a proposed pipeline from the Alberta tar sands 730 miles to Canada's west coast. It would be a double pipe, carrying processed tar west, and bringing condensate to Alberta from ocean tankers. The oil would probably be sold to China. I don't know where the condensate would come from. How is it reasonable to ship and then pipe gas by-products long distances, for the sole purpose of thinning tar enough to pipe it out?

Canada's indigenous peoples, the First Nations, are putting up a strong fight against the western pipeline, vowing that they will not let it cross their lands. In the United States, the controversial issues is the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the Great Plains to refineries in Texas -- and from there the oil would be piped to domestic markets and shipped overseas.

Obviously, there is a lot of money involved in all of this. In Canada, businesses and many governmental units are thrilled about the trillions of dollars that could be generated by selling this glop to the world. Multinational oil companies are deeply invested in project. In the US, large profits and "energy independence" are strong motivations that are leading to huge political pressure for Obama to approve the pipeline.

But before I get to that political issue, there's one more point about this unconventional pool of fossil fuels. It is an energy source that is so inefficient, so hard to extract, and so polluting that until quite recently it was not considered viable. So, when climate change impacts were being evaluated 15 or 20 years ago, the tar sands were not generally considered as an additional source of carbon dioxide. But now, they are very much in play.

Climate scientist Jim Hanson -- who in 2008 gave the warning that 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 is the highest safe level -- has given a fresh warning about the Canadian tar sands. Hansen's team calculates that burning the Alberta oil would raise the planet's concentration of CO2 by 200 parts per million. The Canadian tar alone would take our current 390 parts per million to almost 600 parts per million, a level not seen since the Miocene Era, about 25 million years ago. As Hansen wrote in early June in a letter to fellow scientists, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.” The game, in this case, being the planet.

If those two big pipelines are built, to Texas and to a port on Canada's Pacific coast, then tar sands will definitely be in the mix. If the pipelines are built, they will not sit empty. If the pipelines are built, the asinine production of tar sands will expand -- devastating boreal forests and pristine waters, wasting natural gas to produce dirty oil, enabling and prolonging our oil addiction, and driving us into absolutely certain climate catastrophe.

This can only seem sensible because we are doing the same things in so many other ways -- taking extreme risks in drilling the deep oceans, fracking wells to get the oil and gas trapped in rock, blasting the tops off mountains to get at thin seams of coal. It can only make financial sense when we do the narrowest kind of monetary accounting, and ignore all environmental consequences. It can only be considered morally justifiable when we write off the poor of the world, future generations, and the rest of God's creation.

+     +     +     +     +

In the United States, opposition to the development of Canadian tar sands is being focused on the permitting of the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama -- not Congress -- must approve that permit. Congressional resolutions and powerful business interests are urging him to grant approval. The Environmental Protection Agency has raised substantial questions about the adequacy of the pipelines environmental impact study. Ranchers in Nebraska are organizing in opposition because of their fears that an oil spill could destroy their water supplies.

Bill McKibben and our trusted colleagues at have been prominent leaders in educating about the danger of tar sands, and in organizing actions. I echo some of their appeals.

At the most basic level, sign the on-line petition calling on President Obama to reject the permit for the pipeline, and encourage others to sign it, too. In addition, and more effectively, send a personal email to the President, and/or call the White House (202-456-1111), to express your strong opposition to the Keystone permit.

Letters to the editor of your newspaper, calls and visits to your US Representative and Senators, prayer concerns and newsletter articles at your church -- and the forwarding of this Notes to a wide circle of your friends -- will help to elevate this issue and will put additional pressure on the President.

In Washington, DC, a well-planned campaign of civil disobedience will be conducted at the White House from August 20 to September 3. Thousands of people will witness, and many will be arrested, to indicate that we are serious in seeking climate health and in opposing the pipeline. Especially for my readers in the eastern part of the US, I urge you to join in this act of civil disobedience. I ask you to stand and to speak because of your own convictions, and on behalf of those of us who don't find it feasible to travel to Washington for this action.

Eco-Justice Ministries will be glad to coordinate support and sponsorship -- prayers and finances -- between those who cannot go to DC, and those who are able to join in the act of witness and civil disobedience. Please contact me if you want to be involved in giving or receiving this support.

This is a very long Notes, because the issues are complex and of great importance. I call upon all of you who receive these weekly commentaries -- and all of you who are getting a copy of this from a friend -- to prayerfully consider the dire consequences of expanded production from the tar sands. Consider the devastating impacts on God's creation now and far into the future.

Please, act in every way possible to block the extraction, distribution and use of this unconventional, asinine gunk.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form