Environmentalists and Indian tribal members participate in a “Healing Walk” in July at the Athabasca tar sands oil production complex in Alberta, Canada.
Courtesy photo by Zack Embree
The megaloads of oil production equipment that are moving through southern Idaho, including Blaine County, are headed for one of the largest industrial complexes in the world and a major supplier of crude oil to the United States.
The Athabasca tar sands oil production area in northeast Alberta, Canada, is a sprawling complex of 250 square miles that produces about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil per day. Currently, production capabilities are being expanded and production is expected to reach 3 million barrels per day by 2015.
Most of the oil is delivered by a system of pipelines to more than 20 oil refineries in the United States, stretching across Utah, Wyoming and Montana, south to Texas and Louisiana and east to Illinois and Ohio, where it is refined into petroleum products for American consumers.
The Athabasca tar sands area is the largest of three tar sands deposits in Alberta. The Peace River complex is to the west of Athabasca and the Cold Lake deposit is to the south. Industry experts estimate that together the three areas hold up to 2 trillion barrels of oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia. However, the International Energy Agency estimates that only 178 billion may be economically recoverable at current oil prices.
The problem with tar sands oil is that it is not a liquid. Instead, the oil is locked up in bitumen, a tar-like substance with the consistency of peanut butter. It also requires extensive excavation to reach the deposits.
Crude oil production at Athabasca started in 1967. Since then, some 20 oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Husky Energy and Suncor Energy, have established production facilities.
There are two basic ways to extract oil from bitumen. One is open-pit mining and the second is “in situ.” With open-pit mining, extensive excavation is required to reach the deposits. The bitumen is then scooped into large dump trucks and hauled to an extraction facility.
In-situ mining is used for deeper deposits. To get the oil out, two horizontal shafts, several meters apart, are dug into the deposit. Extremely hot steam is blasted into the top shaft and the oil is melted into a liquid that collects along with water in the lower shaft and is then pumped out.
The megaloads currently being shipped to Athabasca will be used for in-situ mining. The large tanks, with intricate internal systems, use steam and gravity to separate the oil from the water and provide a cleaning system for the water so that it can be reused.
Tar Sands Solution Network claims that more “30 million birds will be lost over the next 20 years due to tar sands development.”
The equipment, designed by and manufactured for Research Conservation Company International, a General Electric Co. subsidiary, is intended to reduce the amount of water used for mining tar sands. Water usage, and subsequent contamination, is a major concern of the Canadian government and environmentalists opposed to tar sands oil production.
Environmentalists have numerous other concerns, too, and that is why they are organizing in ever-increasing numbers to try to stop megaload shipments of tar sands oil production and refinery equipment, not just through southern Idaho but through northern Idaho, Oregon and Montana as well.
A major concern is global warming, since oil production from tar sands requires significantly more energy use than conventional production from liquid oil fields.
The Oil Sands Reality Check website, created by the Tar Sands Solutions Network, a coalition of science-based environmental groups including Greenpeace, 350, the National Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, addresses climate change and other environmental concerns, stating that: “Oil sands production emits three to four times more greenhouse gases than producing conventional crude oil. This makes it one of the dirtiest forms of fuel. Extracting crude from oil sands is incredibly energy intensive and consumes significant quantities of natural gas, electricity and diesel.’’
Regarding water use and contamination, the Tar Sands Solutions Network claims that “95 percent of the water used in tar sands surface mining is so polluted it has to be stored in toxic sludge pits. That’s 206,000 liters of toxic waste discharged every day. Eleven million liters of toxic wastewater seep out of the tailing pits into the boreal forest and Athabasca River every day.”
Polluted tailings ponds from tar sands operations also present hazards to migratory water fowl, with unknown numbers dying each year. Tar Sands Solutions Network claims that more than “30 million birds will be lost over the next 20 years due to tar sands development.”
Fish, too, are being affected. There is evidence of mutations, tumors and deformities on fish that live and spawn in the area.
There is also evidence of elevated cancer rates among Indian tribes, referred to in Canada as First Nations communities, located in the area. Tar Sands Solutions Network blames the tar sands operations, stating that: “A higher than normal incident of rare and deadly cancers has been documented in First Nations communities downstream of the oil sands by doctors, the Alberta Health Department and First Nations.”
Analysis has shown that contaminated water from tar sands operations contains naphthenic acid, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and nickel.
An annual “Healing Walk,” organized by Keepers of the Athabasca, a coalition of First Nations and environmental groups, is held each summer to address tar sands concerns and to visit tar sands areas.
A primary concern of Healing Walk participants is the treaty rights of First Nations, who previously used what was once a pristine forest area for fishing, hunting, trapping and gathering as guaranteed by treaty. They claim they are now blocked from using lands and that the condition of the lands is being irreversibly destroyed.