When Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen brought her “Sunshine ‘n Tar Sands Tour” to Montpelier on Tuesday, she brought these glossy brochures, chronicling the benefits of carbon-heavy tar sands oil and the devout environmentalism of her government. The brochure is slick and well-designed; but when you read it, you start getting a vague sensation in the back of your mind — the same one you get while deleting Nigerian e-mails from your spam folder. (Photo: Two disembodied work gloves cradling some dark, uninviting tar sands. This is the welcoming sight at the top of page 1. Mmmmm.)
(Anyone wishing a different view of tar sands oil would be advised to visit the website of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank that advocates for clean energy. It has extensive information on tar sands oil that’s, well, a little tiny bit different than Alberta’s shiny happy presentation.)
The trouble starts with the very first sentence: “Experts say the world will be dependent on carbon-based fuel for the foreseeable future.”
Which “experts” are those, exactly? ExxonMobil’s? All the experts I trust say the opposite: we have to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuel as quickly as possible to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.
The next sentences promise “sustainable and responsible extraction,” and offer the reassurance that “Alberta is working with industry and other partners to ensure we continue to develop the oil sands resource responsibly…”
First of all, I like how “industry” gets top billing there. Alberta and industry, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G the planet. Second, “other partners”? What, scientists? Public relations firms? Political cronies?
Next we come to Misleading Chart no. 1: “Foreign Company Access to Proven Oil Reserves 2010.”
Please note that it’s not “Proven Oil Reserves,” but “Foreign Company Access.” The countries in red control their own reserves, having thrown off the shackles of colonialism. (Ingrates.) The countries in yellow permit “restricted” access to foreign companies. The friendly green bar, third from the left? Canada’s abundant resources, mainly in Alberta, which are available for corporate exploitation by all comers.
But all those countries in red and yellow have dealt successfully with foreign corporations for decades, to the profit of all concerned. Just because a country chooses to exercise some measure of (often nominal) control over its own resources doesn’t mean we don’t get to use them. Often on insanely favorable (to us) terms. Alberta’s engaging in some “little brown people” and “Muslim” dog-whistling here, to convince us that we can’t possibly afford to pass up Canadian sources.
Next, we get another dog-whistle chorus in a section on “Benefits to the United States.” Here’s another chart, “Sources of U.S. Oil Imports (2011)”. Just look at that list, and tremble in fear at where our oil comes from. Never mind, first of all, that this is “oil imports” only, leaving out domestic US production. Right from the start, this chart is designed to overemphasize our dependence on unreliable brown people.
Now, let’s run down the list of foreign suppliers in order of percentage, and ask the question: “Who do YOU trust?”
Alberta: Friendly white people next door
Saudi Arabia: Brown people! and MUSLIMS!!!
Mexico: Brown people!
Venezuela: Brown people! Who like CASTRO!!!
Rest of Canada: Friendly white people next door
Nigeria: Black people!
Iraq: Brown people! and MUSLIMS!!!
Columbia: Brown people!
My friends, when you look at this list, I think you’ll agree that our duty is clear. Tar sands oil may be dirty, it may imperil the very planet we call home, but at least it comes from white people.
Well, I believe that’s enough RACE PANIC for now. Let’s move on to irrelevant misdirection, shall we?
This is an inspired bit of graphic mischief, which implies a connection between the amount of money we spend on Canadian oil, with the amount of money Canada spends on American good and services. Problem is, there ain’t no such thing. Canada spent gobs of money on American products long before anyone ever shouted “Eureka!” in an Albertan field, and Canada’s US imports would still be very strong if there was no oil in Alberta. This chart relates two things that are, in fact, unrelated. Our primary export markets got that way for reasons that have nothing to do with their oil reserves.
But at first glance, the message appears to be “Hey, look — if we buy more Canadian oil, we’ll get practically all our money back! Whereas, if we buy Arabian oil, they’ll take our money and laugh at us!”
Next in this Glossy Brochure of Doom is a section devoted to “Climate Change.” Here, Alberta can’t help but reveal some bad news about its contribution to global warming.
It admits, for example, that “Alberta produces about one third of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Hmm, Alberta’s population is about 12% of Canada’s total. Which means… Alberta is Canada’s big fat carbon pig! There’s some good news.
The brochure then goes on to admit that oil sands extraction accounts for 21% of Alberta’s greenhouse gas enissions, or 7% of Canada’s total. I think they mean this to be reassuring, but it has the opposite effect on me.
Much of the “Climate Change” section trumpets Alberta’s development of “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), which is a nice theory but it’s been a complete failure in reality so far. I have more on this in my previous diary, “Never trust the glossy brochure, pt. 1”. But here’s a chart showing the effect of Alberta’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Please note that it takes the province until roughly the year 2035 just to get carbon emissions back down to 2005 levels; it then achieves very modest reductions.
And here’s some very bad news. These reductions, modest though they are, depend on significant development of CCS as a viable technology. See the gap between the blue line and the dismayingly rising dotted line at the top? 70% of Alberta’s plan depends on CCS — an untested and troubled technology. Without CCS, y its own admission, Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions will dramatically increase over the next four decades.
And remember the words of Alberta Premier Allison Redford, who continues to promote CCS in her “placate the Americans” work, even while cutting back on CCS R&D back home:
Redford let it slip to Alberta journalists in 2011 that she’d prefer to see “better initiatives and opportunities” than CCS to reduce CO2 emissions, although she still hasn’t said what those “better initiatives” would be.
In other words, Alberta will soon become a greenhouse gas nightmare barring a miraculous turnaround in CCS development or the sudden adoption of a now-unknown technology.
The next section of the brochure is about water quality in and around the massive tar-sands mining sites, where extraction operations use large quantities of water. I don’t know enough about Alberta’s environment to offer comment, but based on the brochure’s reliability so far, I’ll emit a sardonic snicker and move on.
And now — oh boy, oh boy — we come to the section on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), largely discussed in part 1 of this two-part series. I’ll just remind you here that Alberta has funded a total of four CCS projects; it has canceled two of them so far, and even the pro-oil Premier has serious doubts about CCS’ viability, even as she continues to tout the concept in the US.
The next section is called “Air,” and addresses air quality issues. It begins with an admission that tar-sands development produces “greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, ozone, and fine particulate matter.” Well, that’s a bummer.
But wait, Alberta has good news! It’s continuously monitoring air quality, and is pleased to report that
Annual average concentrations of common air pollutants indicate that the region’s air quality is not deteriorating despite an increase in emissions-related activities and population growth.
Three points. First, there’s a lot of wiggle room in “annual average concentrations,” because I’m sure the mining operations don’t continue 24/7. The impact of periodic toxic blasts can be largely masked by reference to “annual average.” And second, Alberta is one of Canada’s plains provinces: open, flat topography for hundreds of miles. That tends to produce very strong winds, which quickly carry the toxins away. And third, Alberta’s population may be growing, but it’s still a huge area with relatively few people in it.
How few? Well, Vermont has 625,000 people in 9600 square miles. Alberta has 3.8 million people in 255,000 square miles. (All numbers rounded.) Vermont has a population density of 65 people per square mile; Alberta has 15 people per square mile.
Put it another way, Alberta is the size of Texas and has roughly the same population as Connecticut. Given those numbers, OF COURSE the air is relatively clean.
Now we come to WIldlife and Biodiversity, a section that includes a lovely photo of a blue heron. I think that’s just reflections in the water, but I swear it looks like an oil slick. Maybe coulda picked a different picture.
Speaking of birds, Alberta lets slip another inconvenient factoid here: “Nearly half the species of birds in North America use the [Albertan] boreal forest each year.” Oh yeah, that’s where I want massive mining and fuel-processing operations — in a part of the continent that helps support “nearly half” of our bird species. If you’re trying to convince me to change my mind about tar sands, don’t tell me your province is an ecological paradise! Lie to me! Tell me it’s a vast, barren wasteland that no one will miss when it’s gone!
Up next, Reclamation. That’s a big problem in tar-sands mining, which causes massive disruption to vast areas. For instance, this photo of a blasted landscape devoid of life:
Yeah, that’ll take a bit of “reclamation.” But don’t worry, Alberta is on the case! They have 71 square kilometers “under active reclamation.”
That’s a lot, isn’t it? Well… compared to your backyard, yes. But the same page tells us that 715 square kilometers has been surface-mined already — out of a total surface mining area of 4800 square kilometers. This handy-dandy chart illustrates the extent of the problem; the extremely narrow bands at the top represent areas fully or partially reclaimed, while the vast majority (blue and pink bands) is still a complete wreck.
The brochure also tells us that “it can take 15 or more years to effectively establish a successful ecosystem” in a surface-mined area. That’s the optimistic estimate for lands where reclamation is actually completed. It also boasts that Alberta has given $4.5 million to the University of Alberta to support reclamation research. Which says two things to me, both bad: (1) compared to the size of the industry, $4.5 million is a drop in the bucket, and (2) they’re still doing research, which means they don’t really know how to do reclamation yet. Comforting.
And then there are the deposits accessible by in-situ methods — 80% of the oil sands. An in-situ operation, they tell us, disturbs merely 10-15% as much land as a surface mine. That’s still a hell of a lot of land. I wonder how much of their profits the oil companies are setting aside for reclamation work?
But if you think reclamation is a tough job, wait ’till you get to the next chapter: Tailings. This section helpfully starts by informing us that “Tailings management remains one of the most difficult environmental challenges for the oil sands mining sector. There are currently more than 170 square kilometers of tailings ponds in Alberta.”
According to the Pembina Institute, a Canadian nonprofit that studies energy issues, tailings are a toxic waste byproduct of tar sands extraction, and more than 200 million liters of fine tailings are produced each day. Here’s a photo of that “production” in process:
More good news: The brochure has a photo of a tailings pond that’s been successfully reclaimed. A full 15 years after it was closed.
And it’s the first tailings pond to be fully reclaimed.
The first one.
Out of “more than 170 square miles of tailings ponds.”
Bear in mind, this is the happy side of the equation — the stuff that Alberta is willing to admit in a PR document aimed at convincing skeptics that tar-sands oil is peachy keen.
I’m now going to skip a couple of sections and move on to “Economic Benefits,” which promotes the incredible bonanza created by tar sands oil. And it includes a chart that reveals another little problem: the fact that tar-sands investment in Alberta is growing rapidly, even as it’s already contributing substantially to global warming and the destruction of the boreal forest environment.
The scale is in billions of dollars. As you can see, tar-sands investment accounted for perhaps one-third of Alberta’s total through 2006. But from 2008 onward, it was more than half. What this tells me is that tar sands is already an environmental disaster, and the industry is at the beginning of a rapid growth curve.
There’s more, there’s more. There’s a two-page whitewash of the industry’s impact on aboriginal peoples — their rights, their health, their lands. There’s a section on meeting the challenges of rapid growth fueled (sorry) by the expansion of tar sands. And finally, Alberta welcomes you to find even more slanted, biased “facts” through its Information Portal. Which, frankly, I’m afraid to enter; sounds too much like that time-travel thingy in “Star Trek” that sent Kirk and Spock back to the 1930s and their fateful encounter with a very young Joan Collins.
Besides, after wading through these 30 pages, I’ve had quite enough of Alberta’s happy-face approach to tar sands oil.
Is anyone still reading this?
Well, then, here’s my simple conclusion.
Vermont has an extremely small role to play in this drama; we could conceivably see tar-sands oil crossing a small portion of the Northeast Kingdom. But after all I’ve heard and read this week, I don’t want to have the slightest role in promulgating this multifaceted calamity.
Oh, I almost forgot. There’s a comforting message in the margins of this brochure — a message certain to assuage the bruised and battered sensibilities of anyone who gives a tinker’s damn about the earth:
This fact sheet is printed with vegetable-based inks on chlorine-free paper made with post-consumer recycled fibre.
Well, okay then.