Sisters of St. Joseph of CarondeletOctober 22, 2019

Earth Concerns News

The Tragedy of Tar-Sands Extraction by Sister Linda Neil, CSJ

For me, the tragedy of the extraction of tar sands became very clear when I saw a few photos like the one below. It reminded me of the noxious practice of Mountain Top Removal in our own country. Mother Earth is raped and left naked, dying. All the neighborsCWhite-tail Deer, Moose, Elk, Mule Deer, Red Foxes, Woodland Caribou, Grey Wolfs, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, Cougars, Canada Lynxes, Bobcats, Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Goshawks, Boreal Chickadees, Diamond-back Rattlesnakes, Leopard Frogs, Ravens, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Snowshoe Hares, White-tailed Jack Rabbits, Pronghorn Antelope, Wolverines, Pine Martins, Black-Footed Ferrets, Burrowing Owls, Squirrels, Woodland Bison, Canada Geese and Whooping CranesChave lost their homes. This is what the Keystone XL pipeline would promote in Canada's boreal forests.

What exactly are tar sands or oil sands as the oil industry calls them? They are bituminous sands that contain mixtures of sand, clay, water and a very dense, viscous form of petroleum that is bitumen; hence, the name "tar" because it looks like and smells like tar. This form of petroleum is so heavy and thick that it will not flow unless it is heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature, it has the consistency of cold molasses. Tar sands are extracted by surface mining and drilling. In surface mining the "overburdened" trees, plants, peat bogs, clay and sand are removed, and power shovels and dump trucks extract the tar sands. National Geographic describes the process very graphically:
"Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley in Alberta, Canada. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the layer of oil sands, then two tons of the sand itself. Several barrels of water must be heated to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it. Afterward, contaminated water is discharged into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude Mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died " (Kunzig, Robert, National Geographic, March 2011).
Once the ground cover has been removed, then hot water and caustic soda are added to the sand which creates slurry which is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated, and the oil is skimmed from the top. Another method uses steam injection in which steam is injected into a well at 300-340 degrees Celsius for a period of weeks to months; the well sits for another period of time, so that the heat can soak into the oil, and then the hot oil is pumped out of the well. There are a few other drilling methods that are used, but in the interests of space and your patience, I will spare you those. I think you get the extraction concept!
ExxonMobil commercials put an interesting spin on "oil sands," of course. This process is touted as "Responsible Development, Innovation, and Opportunity." In a 16-page explanation of the process the company states," ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil are developing and deploying state-of-the-art technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with production, improve water and tailings management, and reclaim and protect the land. (
I kept returning to the picture. How do you reclaim and protect that land? How can this whole process reduce greenhouse emissions? On television, a very capable, neat and clean gentleman explains the process. The same is true of the written report with fine workers looking sanitized and blissful, some even planting small seedlings! No actual pictures of the aftermath appear, of course.
What are the environmental effects, and how do they exacerbate climate change? The Sierra Club, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Friends of Earth, Bill McKibben's, The Wilderness Society, The Environmental Defense Fund all weigh in about the disastrous effects of tar sands.
The following examples are a few of those which show how environmentally damaging tar sands are:
--This pipeline will carry oil cooked from tar sands, strip-mined from virgin forest, turning a wildlife-rich habitat into a barren moonscape.


--Producing oil from tar sands is a double disaster for global warming. Firstly, it destroys the ability of forests to store safely excess carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. It uses a huge energy expenditure, removing forest, dirt etc. Then it burns extra energy natural gas to melt the oil out of the tar. All of this means that oil from tar sands emits twice as much carbon pollution as conventional oil.
--The pipeline will cross 70 rivers and streams, including the Missouri, Platte, Yellowstone and Arkansas. It crosses aquifers for example, the already-stressed Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifers in the world and a critical source of fresh water for more than two million Americans and the U.S. High Plains' agricultural industry, part of America's "breadbasket" on which millions of Americans rely for drinking water and agricultural irrigation.
--It will bisect the Sandhills of Nebraska, 1.3 million acres of wetlands and home to more than 1,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, and plants.
--The likelihood of pipeline leaks and spills is nearly certain; oil is being transported over 1,700 miles from Canada to American refineries in Texas.
--This oil (It is uncertain that it will be used for domestic consumption.) then fuels America's insatiable thirst for oil and delays any real effort to wean ourselves from oil to more sustainable fuel sources. (The Wilderness Society and The Environmental Defense Fund)
I think Frances Beinecke, the president of the NRDC, sums up the process so well when she says: "Make no mistake. A no-holds-barred review of the Keystone XL pipeline will reveal that this entire scheme is a boon to Big Oil and a disaster in the making for the rest of us. It would drive more destruction of the Boreal forest, turbo-charge global warming, threaten water supplies in the heartland, raise gas prices and lock America into the dirtiest oil on the planet for decades to come."
For now President Obama has delayed the decision to allow the pipeline until 2012. This could be very good news because it will allow for more environmental-impact studies and time to build more opposition to the pipeline. Perhaps it will be the end of the pipeline; perhaps the Canadians will see that this is not the best use of their precious forests.
For me, this decision is a time to reflect on the power of us to protect our common blessings: our air and water, the wildlife and forests. Hundreds of thousands of people sent e-mails, made telephone calls, posted messages on Facebook and sent Tweets to delay this pipeline. On November 6, 12,000 people circled the White House as a living chain to tell the president to stop the pipeline. For now the voices of the 99 percent have drowned out the influence of the big oil lobbies. In a democracy we have power if we use it! Please follow this issue on any of the above sites. You can take a moment to thank the president for his decision by visiting: The Sierra Club website at
Boreal Forest, Alberta Canada, May 31, 2011