Tar Sands

September 29th, 2010

Liquid transportation fuel, petroleum in particular, are essential to human civilization. The quality of life we cherish and defend is intrinsically linked to this volatile and global commodity . A liter of oil has approximately 36,000 British Thermal Units, the measure used to raise one liter of water one degree Celsius. This dense package of energy allows us near instant travel and has made our planet more connected via aircraft and automobile. However the mobility, warmth and consumer goods created by petroleum come at a cost. When combusted petroleum creates toxins that in concentrated amounts kill life. The exhaust of an automobile when trapped in a garage is fatal and is a means people use to take their life. As an analogy, the atmosphere enveloping the planet is similar to the garage. We’re filling it up with carbon dioxide and it is only a matter of time before we tap the carrying capacity and reach an irreversible tipping point. While it isn’t going to happen instantly on some mythical date in 2012, it is constantly increasing. If you’re reading this, it isn’t going to happen in your lifetime.



Energy, how we source it and how we us it, is central to the foreign and domestic policy of the United States. The nine-year, trillion dollar conflict in Iraq is linked to oil. The north slope of Alaska is a battleground between conservation and extraction. Closer to home, the tar sands of Alberta are emerging as one more flashpoint for and about energy. Bitumen is a form of petroleum trapped in a solid form. To render the substance useable requires boiling the oil-impregnated sands to release the oil. Pure sulfer is a byproduct of this process.



Getting the oil to market requires specialized infrastructure. From the massive boilers manufactured in South Korea and carted through Montana to the pipeline bisecting the eastern portion of Treasure State, we are as citizens and consumers embroiled in this debate. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would connect the Alberta tar sand resources with the refineries and ports of Texas. The construction of the pipeline will provide immediate, but temporary, employment. Once set, the maintenance will keep more people at work. From a national security standpoint oil from Canada is safer than oil procured from trading partners that are ideologically at odds with our nation. A portion of the oil will be exported.



The downside is the carbon created to transform the bitumen to oil and the pipeline that traverses the breadbasket of our nation. The tar sands extraction will strip 410 square miles of boreal forest, the oil rich sand scooped up and boiled in a large quantity of water. Even with dedicated remediation, it is at least 80 years before the forest is back to producing oxygen. The pipeline also puts aquifers at risk.



The project is moving forward, after being shelved for a year of additional review. President Obama must now decide in 60 days as it was built into the last minute congressional bill regarding the middle class tax rate for 160 million US citizens. This congressional “horse trading” is nothing new. Yet putting the burden of an untenable oil project on the middle class is more than trading apples for oranges. It’s trading apples for lemons.



We all consume oil. It is essential for our existence. If we want to prepare future generations for a healthy life we need to address our levels of consumption and invest in conservation and renewable innovation.

Posted in Daily Chronicle