By Jay Lieberman
Volunteer with MN350's Communications Team

After I started volunteering with MN350 last spring, I volunteered to write a blog post on the Canadian tar sands, the origin of that carbon-intensive, climate-destroying sludge that Enbridge wants to run through Line 3. I’ve distilled the tons of information I found into Four things you should know about the tar sands.

  1. Extracting tar sands requires the destruction of a giant carbon sink. 

The Canadian tar sands are a layer of mixed sand, clay, and bitumen (aka asphalt) found 40–60 meters under 54,000 square miles of Northern Alberta or an area about as large as the state of Florida. The land above the tar sands is boreal forest, an incredibly diverse ecosystem with forested plains, bogs, and peatlands; coniferous and mixed forests; and millions of waterways. Since boreal forests capture and store twice as much carbon dioxide as tropical forests, the area could play a critical, global role in curbing climate change. However, more than half of tar sands mining is done by clear cutting the boreal forest and then striping off all the earth (called “overburden” by the oil industry) above the tar sands layer. The boreal ecosystem is destroyed, and the reclamation promised by the oil industry will not restore it.  

2. Tar sands mining creates colossal amounts of toxic waste that may never be cleaned up. 

After the exposed tar sands are scooped out, the oil companies use a mixture of hot water and chemicals to separate the asphalt from the sand and gravel. When that separation process is complete, the water/chemical mixture, now containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and other chemicals, is pumped into the tar sand’s open tailings ponds. Currently, twenty of these unlined tailings ponds hold at least one trillion litres of sludgy waste in an 85-square-mile area, an area the size of 73 New York Central Parks. The dam that holds in one of the largest tailings pond is one of the largest earthen dams in the world.

After the separation process is complete, about half of the asphalt crude can be diluted with lighter oils so it flows through pipelines, but the rest requires an energy intensive “upgrading” process. Near these upgrading facilities, scientists have detected the presence of elevated levels of numerous hazardous air pollutants, and more toxic waste is stored in ponds. 

Will this pollution ever be cleaned up? The Canadian federal and Alberta Province government are writing new regulations intended to take effect in 2022 that will allow the tar sands companies to release all the billions of gallons of toxic waste into the Athabasca River. The regulations authorize discharges of “treated effluent,” even though the sector’s biggest companies have yet to show they can effectively clean that much toxic laced water.

3. The toxic wastes from tar sands mining are endangering the health and livelihoods of the First Nations people who live downstream. 

Toxic chemicals in the wastewater lakes are seeping into the groundwater and into the Athabasca River, one of North America’s longest free-flowing rivers. An independent study sponsored by First Nations tribes and Health Canada found that traditional foods like moose, ratroot, duck, wild mint, spruce gum, pickerel, caribou, and Labrador tea contained elevated levels of heavy metals and carcinogens. The Canadian government has stated that fish from the Athabasca River should no longer be eaten. 

Nearly one quarter of the First Nations participants in the study, people who lived downstream from the tar sands mines, had cancers and other ailments that could be caused by mining pollution.  

4. To control costs, the oil companies planned to move the tar sands crude to markets using new high-volume pipelines, but those pipelines are stalled and the delay has slowed down tar sands production

Five new high-capacity pipelines were proposed to bring more tar sands crude to refineries outside Canada at a lower cost than trains or trucks. Two were cancelled and the other three (Trans Mountain in Canada, Keystone XL, and the Enbridge Mainline including Lines 3) have been delayed by opposition from indigenous groups and climate justice activists like us. In fact, opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline by First Nations groups, climate activists, and the government of British Columbia is so strong that a private company building the pipeline dropped the project. Unfortunately, the Canadian government nationalized the pipeline and is still attempting to build it.  

The long delay in adding pipeline capacity, low prices for tar sands crude, and the warnings about the climate crisis in reports from the IPCC are causing banks and oil companies to pull their investments from the tar sands mining projects and pipeline companies. Leading European banks have stopped their investment altogether, funding renewable energy projects instead. Exxon has delayed their next major tar sands project because of low pipeline capacity, and the Koch-owned oil companies sold their leases on millions of acres of tar sands because the future of tar sands development is so uncertain. 

To sum it up, tar sands production is a disaster for the boreal forests and the First Nations people of Alberta. But the work we’re doing to stop Line 3 along with the pipeline resistance of so many others in the US and Canada is slowing down tar sands development. Let’s stop Line 3 and keep the tar sands in the ground. 

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Jay Lieberman is a retired Agile software development coach. He likes vegetable gardening and doing volunteer work on Media Relations with MN350.