Fifty years ago, Canadians were taught in school that oil would never be extracted from the tar sands because it was too expensive.
But things change. The tar sands have become the fastest growing—and dirtiest—form of oil on the planet.
When the first open pit mine began in 1967, it produced 30,000 barrels per day; by 1999, production had increased to 300,000 barrels per day. Now Big Oil squeezes almost two million barrels of oil from a swath of bitumen bigger than England. This means tar sands production has increased by more than 500 per cent in less than fifteen years, and Big Oil’s expansion plans indicate production will triple again in the next 17 years, to more than five million barrels of dirty tar sands oil every day.
The irresponsible pace and scale of tar sands development comes with a number of serious risks, including the violation First Nations’ constitutionally protected treaty rights, pollution of land and water in northern¬ Alberta, the extirpation of woodland caribou in the region, and, as NASA climatologist James Hansen has made clear, game over for the climate. Relying so heavily on tar sands development also puts at risk Canada’s long-term economic health, and makes it all but impossible to make the necessary transition to investing in a clean energy future.
EXTREME ENERGY COMES WITH EXTREME COSTS
In its obsession with the rapid liquidation of tar sands bitumen, the Alberta government already has approved tar sands leases covering 92,000 square kilometres of Alberta’s northern boreal forest, an area the size of Indiana and larger than New Brunswick. This is roughly 60 per cent of the total area (~142,000 square kilometres) open to bitumen development in Alberta.
There are two methods of extracting Alberta’s dirty bitumen. Surface mining is used for tar sands deposits less than 75 metres underground. Deeper deposits are recovered using subsurface techniques that heat bitumen “in place” (in situ) so it can be pumped to the surface. Each of these methods come with extreme social, environmental and economic costs and risks.
The amount of bitumen accessible by surface mining covers 4,800 square kilometres, an area the size of Greater Vancouver. To date, 10 surface mines are in operation, with 21 more proposed or under construction. These open-pit strip mines, which can be seen from space, have disturbed 715 square kilometres, an area the size of Waterton Lakes National Park in southwest Alberta. More than 1,300 square kilometres had been approved for additional strip mining operations (as of January 2009).
WHEN WILL WE STOP?
The strip mines may be the ugliest form of tar sands extraction, but it is the subsurface (or in situ) extraction process that has the largest land and carbon footprint. Forty-three in situ operations are now turning bitumen into dirty oil, and 52 additional operations have been approved or are already under construction. As of October 2012, 50 more are undergoing regulatory review (and will almost certainly be approved), and another 45 projects have been announced, with production anticipated to begin between 2015 and 2025.
Tar sands strip mines and in situ projects currently produce 1.7 million barrels per day (BPD) of bitumen, up from 300,000 BPD in 1999, though operating design capacity of current projects is 1.9 million BPD.
But the tar sands companies won’t stop there – the rapid approval and construction of tar sands mines and in situ projects will more than triple output in the next 17 years. Industry estimates indicate production capacity will explode to more than five million BPD by 2030. Some estimates suggest tar sands expansion could see enough projects drilling and mining bitumen to produce nine million BPD.
That’s over 270 million one litre pop bottles of bitumen per day being produced right now, with a goal to increase production to more than 1.5 billion one litre pop bottles per day in the future.
Such a rapid expansion of tar sands development is part of a global energy scenario that would push average global temperatures as high as six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. According to theInternational Energy Agency, tar sands production would not exceed 3.3 million barrels per day if we are to have any hope of keeping the climate below the two degree threshold that has been recognized by the international community as necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.Clearly, it’s in no one’s interest to allow tar sands expansion to continue as planned.
MORE PIPELINES EQUALS MORE TAR SANDS
One of the greatest constraints to expanding tar sands production is the limited pipeline capacity to transport bitumen crude to market in the United States and Asia. As a result, energy companies are implementing plans to build or expand at least five major pipelines to transport bitumen crude to the Gulf Coast, the West Coast and the East Coast. These massive infrastructure projects – which include TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Line 9 pipelines, and Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline – are essential prerequisites for expanding tar sands development, and lock us into a fossil-fuel dependent future that would have disastrous impacts for the climate.
Limiting the expansion of new and existing pipelines is an essential part of reducing our reliance on hydrocarbon energy and building a clean energy future.
Playing Dirty at Home and Abroad
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it a priority to expedite the expansion of tar sands infrastructure, including the rapid approval of more mines, in situ projects, and pipelines. This irresponsible and ideologically driven agenda has resulted in three things: an organized and well-funded strategy, in concert with the Big Oil, of dirty diplomacy to undermine responsible energy and environmental policies in Canada and around the world; an unprecedented crackdown on charities and public attacks on any organization or individual who questions the scale of tar sands development; and a growing international movement for a clean energy future that does not include rapid tar sands expansion.