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World's Crudest Extraction

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Issue: 55 Section: Opinion Geography: West Alberta Topics: Mining, tar sands

November 8, 2008

World's Crudest Extraction

At the tar sands they’re digging up dirty fuel

by Macdonald Stainsby

As if in allegiance to the tar sands gigaproject, a convoy of trucks drives out of the mines near Fort McMurray. Photo: Luc Bourgeois, © lucbourgeoisphoto.org.

EDMONTON, ALBERTA–When the Albertan government recently put forward $25 million to counter the negative press around tar sands mining, Premier Ed Stelmach strained credulity by stating: "In terms of David and Goliath, I've been in this position before, and now I'm here."

According to Stelmach, David was the largest industrial project on Earth, with nearly $200 billion in investment, being picked on by what he imagined were the God-like powers of environmental campaigners.

The goal of the $25 million was to make the tar sands seem like just another source of petroleum, including re-branding the massive undertaking as the “oil sands.” Of course, now that the price of oil has risen so high, it seems any “oil” is good “oil.” But what if it isn't really even oil?

Those who read the Dominion's tar sands special issue from 2007 are likely already aware that the bulk of today's tar sands production includes digging out northern Alberta's boreal forest at an astronomical rate in order to create what are by far the world's largest strip mines.

Sometimes digging to levels of over 100 metres or 300 feet deep, it can take anywhere between two and four tonnes of earth to produce just one barrel of oil. At a rate currently approximating 1.3 million barrels of “mock” (synthetic) crude, the rate of mining in the Athabasca region is far beyond that of any other process in the world.

But energy corporations, along with the Albertan, Canadian and American governments, are doing whatever they can to hide this basic information, instead simply calling the tar sands “heavy oil,” perhaps a little dirtier, perhaps more expensive but generally just another hydrocarbon.

Alberta's boreal desert: the tar sands. Photo: Luc Bourgeois, © lucbourgeoisphoto.org.

Some of the realities of the tar sands mining process, however, are coming to light across North America, through not only the work of those opposed to the destructive process, but also because of “errors” being committed by the producers themselves.

On April 29, 2008, Albertans awoke to discover that “hundreds of ducks [were] dead or dying after landing on a Syncrude tailings pond,” the second largest of Syncrude’s tailings “ponds,” which, alongside Suncor’s, is one of the two original and still largest mining operations in the region. The event helped focus the media and the public’s attention on the ticking time bombs of waste water produced in the mining of the tar sands.

All mining operations in the world today, whether gold, nickel, cadmium or uranium produce waste, which is mixed with water in tailings ponds, and which will not settle or separate for centuries.

However the scale of the waste, composed of very toxic materials unleashed through the mining of tar sands, is practically beyond comprehension. So, too, are the massive piles of sulphur extracted as a by-product of the “slurry” upgrading process, which separates the bitumen (pre-fuel) from the sands.

The final product – after digging, upgrading and ultimately refining – is a mock crude that can become gasoline (though it produces a much smaller proportion per barrel than “regular sweet crude”), diesel and more. But the mining process is needed because the regular carbon breakdown and evolution of the tar sands are being artificially sped up by several millions of years. This is why the tar sands are so expensive to make into mock oil and take so much input in terms of energy, money, water, labour and ecological destruction to extract.

The largest trucks in the world are carrying hundreds of tonnes of mined land to the slurries in order to get this done. The contractors who carry this out are generally among those corporations who would help other forms of mining across North America and around the world, such as Caterpillar.

It is perhaps fitting that Canada, which is home to the investors and head offices of the mining corporations with the worst track records of violating human rights in the Global South, would also have the largest and most destructive mining operation on the face of the earth.

But there is no “poetic justice” here, rather just a local version of the victimization of primarily indigenous communities who live near theses massive mining projects that occurs around the world.

Celina Harpe, an elder from the Cree community in the northern Albertan village of Fort MacKay, has seen the impacts of the tar sands development first hand.

“They ruined our water, the air, pretty much everything else. The animals, the berries, all our livelihood – that’s what we used to live on,” she explains. “The fish; there’s no more. We can’t eat fish from the river, we can’t drink the water, we get sick from all that pollution. People are dying of cancer, whereas it never used to be like that. And I’m sure, I’m very positive that this has got something to do with the air and the water. The pollution is doing something to our people.”

Similar to operations across Latin America and Africa, the people who call the region being mined home are not given the opportunity for “free, prior, and informed consent” that the recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples declares necessary.

Canada was one of the four countries, along with New Zealand, Australia and the United States, to opt out of signing this declaration. Hosting the offices of mining corporations both operating in the Global South and carrying out multiple projects at “home” is surely one of the major reasons why Ottawa voted against the ratification of that historic document.

“First Nations in the region impacted by the tar sands development in Alberta have been stuck in a regulatory process that has degraded their sovereignty by forcing them to engaged in a multi-stakeholder process that in no way recognizes their unique nation-to-nation relationship with Canada,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller, tar sands campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

The Albertan government is working overtime to obfuscate the actual environmental and human costs of producing mock oil from mining the tar sands. While they are spending enough money on the campaign to make most grassroots activists drool, it will be a test of their communication prowess to see if they can create the perception that “the oil sands will become an increasing source of interest as a secure, abundant energy supply. The oil sands are definitely on the world's radar screen,” as Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach would have us believe.

Invoking the war on terror and the global energy crunch, Stelmach has accused tar sands detractors of not only sending out misinformation, but “even worse, they could serve to jeopardize this country's [the United States’] energy security at a time when Asian markets are clamouring for oil." The result, he says, would be North America being pushed to rely upon countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran for conventional oil supplies.

“In the province of Alberta, industry dominates all provincial regulatory and enforcement bodies and the stacks are against First Nations,” says Muller.

Those activists who wish to see the tar sands understood as a massive escalation in both the mining of the earth and the extinguishing of First Nations in the region already have a major asset on their side: the truth, along with the continued errors of tar sands producers in their giant strip mining operations.

Canadian mining corporations are being exposed as among the worst practitioners of corporate social responsibility the world over, from Guatemala to Australia to Chile. They must also be called out for using the same approach in the tar sands – not just for the multiple ways they impact climate change, deforestation and more, but also as the initiators of the largest strip mine ever conceived by human beings.

For decades, the indigenous populations living in North America have contended with the twins of mining and energy. In a few cases, such as uranium mining, energy and mining coincide in a single project. They do so again with a vengeance in the largest industrial project in human history – the tar sands, a gigaproject of strip mining the earth to send mock oil to the United States and leave a vast wasteland of poisoned land, human beings and giant lakes of waste in their wake.

With companies such as Barrick Gold going around the planet in search of its namesake precious metal, it is noteworthy that Canada's tar sands operations – using clean natural gas to produce this massive amount of dirty mock oil – can be seen as turning gold into lead at home.

Macdonald Stainsby is an avid hitchhiker and works for Oil Sands Truth.

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As someone who wants to make informed decisions on issues based on a variety of sources, I find your reporting retoric full inacuracies that even I who has been reading about the oilsands for a while now, know are absolutely wrong!

I want real information. I don't want blind pro- or anti- arguments. They are not believable!!!

Anti-oilsands coalition or unbiased publication?

I have to agree with the 1st comment. This project is by far an eco-friendly operation and in fact looks like a moonscape when driving through but publishing hearsay and outright BS just discredits valid environmental/socioeconmic concerns about the operation.

I also find it amusing how interviewers always hunt out a first nation person to crap all over the operation but fail to mention that:
-bands in this region take in millions (yes millions) of dollars from these companies
-these companies build infrastructure within these comunities (schools, Community centers...)
-The bills for almost all of the independent environmental monitoring ends up coming out of these companies pockets
-ANY meeting with elders/chiefs has to be preceded by a sizable cheque and still does not guarantee the meeting will take place or that all parties will attend.
-These companies have a mandate to hire Northerners (first nations) over non-northerners and regularly hire and train Northerners over more experienced non-Northerners.

No I don't work for Suncor. No I'm not racist. Yes it disgusts me to think that this operation was brought into being on the banks of the Athabasca River. There's just a lot of stuff that goes on that isn't nearly as sexy/popular to write about and so is never reported. I guess it has to follow the mold of: Big evil corporate giant who drowns puppies on the weekend exploits natives and destroys the environment.

These companies didn't sneak in there and start mining. They came to an agreement with first nations and government, went through a painful and long regulatory process and cut some huge cheques to do so. Yes it's a friggin' nightmareish operation but these companies do bend over backward toward the first nations community who essentially gave them the go-ahead once there was enough zeros on the cheque.

Heavy Oil

Just for your information: "Heavy oil" is the proper geological term for the hydrocarbon in these sands not "...doing whatever they can to hide this basic information..." But you're obviously really doing your research and not scandalizing...

I get it tar sands=bad.

I get it tar sands=bad. Contaminated river=not good, duckies dead, no good either... all that other stuff also not ideal.

I also want real information and am having some difficulties digging it up. I want numbers!

Hey... but props on "obfuscate".

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