Do you think this development should be compared to the Great Wall of China or the Great Pyramids of Giza?
There are plenty of good reasons to be concerned about the health of the environment here on planet earth, however, if you watch the global debate on this, you’ll notice that certain critical items are missing entirely from the conversation. Take the Canadian oil sands, for example, the largest industrial project and the largest energy development on the face of the earth, with an environmental impact second only to a nuclear disaster.
Yet some are comparing this monumental effort to some of the greatest and most fantastic engineering feats in human history.
“It is an enterprise of epic proportions. Akin to building the pyramids or China’s Great Wall, only bigger.” –Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister
Oil sands, often called tar sands, extraction is big business in the boreal forests of Alberta, Canada where the world’s second largest oil deposits are estimated to be found. The oil is not located deep underground where traditional oil wells or even fracking operations could pump it the surface, but contained instead in an earthen mixture of materials located just beneath the topsoil of the forest.
“Oil sands are either loose sands or partially consolidated sandstone containing a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, and water,saturated with a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen (or colloquially tar due to its similar appearance, odour, and colour).” [Source]
To extract hydrocarbons from oil sands, everything must first be stripped from the land, which annihilates the eco-system, leaving behind a continuously expanding, scorched and scarred toxic wasteland. It is even more devastating than strip-mining or mountain-top removal to get at coal seams in Appalachia, because the oil containing bitumen is naturally mixed with other materials and must be chemically separated before then being shipped thousands of miles to market by railways and pipelines that snake through some of the most pristine forests on the planet.
“Extracting and refining this hydrocarbon, however, is “the most polluting and carbon intensive oil process on earth, draining wetlands, diverting rivers and stripping all trees and vegetation from the forest”, according to International Boreal Forest Conservation Science Panel. This led the UN special advisor, Maude Barlow, to describe the landscape of the oil sand development in Canada as reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor.” [Source]
The process itself uses an enormous amount of hydrocarbons, and leaves behind a massive pools of toxic run-off that must be contained in tailing ponds, ostensibly until the end of time. Where once you had a thriving wildlife habitat, you now have irreprable badlands.
Here is a look at the process require to extract oil from tar sands:
- All wetlands in the area to be mined must first be drained, and any rivers diverted.
- Trees, peat moss and soil are scraped away by bulldozer, exposing the sandy deposit. This means that all wildlife in the area is lost or displaced.
- The top layer of tar-soaked sand is scooped up by colossal steam shovels, each of which burns 16,000 litres (4,200 gallons) of diesel per day, into enormous multi-million dollar dump trucks (that each weigh 40% more than a Boeing 747 airplane) to be hauled to the extraction plant.
- The sand is then processed at intense temperatures, using much water and natural gas, to separate out the extremely thick bitumen. Impure and too viscous to flow, it must be pre-processed through an “upgrading” process before it can be sent through a pipeline to an oil refinery.
- However, only about 20% of the sand is shallow enough for it to be scooped up in that manner. The portion of the deposit that is at a depth of more than 100 metres (328 feet) cannot be obtained with open-pit mining. Instead, steam as hot as 538ºC (1,000ºF) is injected into the sand, which reduces the bitumen’s viscosity and allows it to drain and then be pumped up to the surface and pre-processed.
- Regardless of whether the crude was obtained via pit mining or in-situ production, it must then be further processed at a refinery in order to transform it into usable products like gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products.
The scale of the operations is staggering, and the equipment involved is of such enormous size it’s almost comical to look at, however, there are few recent photos of the development to be found online, but almost no live-action aerial video footage is available on the internet.
Media access is apparently very well limited, but some idea of the size of the sites can be seen from Google Maps, although the images are of unknown date, and the projects are expected to more than double over the next 20 years. See for yourself:
The bitumen has been used for centuries by regional natives along the Athabasca river to water-proof canoes and other vessels, but now it is seen as a valuable commodity in an energy-starved world. Even though oil prices have collapsed to around as low as less than $40 a barrel, this projects will continue.
This video lends a hand in understanding the magnitude of this development:
Any debate about climate change, global warming, or whatever you like to call it, without considering the direct effects that the energy industry is having on our eco-systems right now, is incomplete. An internationally agreed upon 2 °C (3.6 °F) ceiling on global warming will be rather meaningless if we have no forests to clean and renew our oxygen supply, and no clean water to drink.
This project is so vast that former prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper has compare it to the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China. What are your thoughts?
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