Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

Reviewed by: Clayton Ruby
Categories: Pollution - Future Energy
Tar Sands book review A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent \ Andrew Nikiforuk

It’s no secret that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have designed their environmental policy to fit a full-speed-ahead exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands. It’s important, therefore, to have an understanding of the industry’s environmental impact. Andrew Nikiforuk’s award-winning Tar Sands offers precisely that.

First, “oil sands” is a misnomer. The resource is actually a mixture of sand and clay that contains a small percentage of bitumen – a sticky concoction of hydrocarbons that also  contains sulfur, nitrogen and heavy metals. Energy companies scour vast reaches of the landscape around Fort McMurray, Alberta, cutting forests and draining water-laden muskeg in order to expose the tar sands that lie below. Massive open-pit mines are excavated, using the largest dump trucks in the world to remove millions of tonnes of material. Once mined, the sandy mixture is given a “hot wash” to extract the bitumen.

In addition to its physical impact on vast tracts of land, tar sands development seriously endangers several species, including caribou, fish, bear and moose. Moreover, tar sands are one of the planet’s most expensive fossil fuels because of the vast amounts of water and energy used to process them.

Each barrel of bitumen extracted from the sandy soil requires the use of roughly three barrels of fresh water. The industry, writes Nikiforuk, currently “uses as much water every year as a city of two million people.” Planned expansion of tar sands development is projected to almost triple current oil production, bringing it up to 3.3 million barrels per day by 2020. This growth would require a volume of water that Natural Resources Canada admits “would not be sustainable because the Athabasca River does not have sufficient flows.”

Nikiforuk is not enamored by the industry’s use of natural gas to process the tar sands. He quotes one executive who likens using natural gas to melt a resource as dirty as bitumen to “burning a Picasso for heat.” Unfortunately, other energy sources are likely worse. Coal carries a huge price in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear energy has its own issues, not the least of which involves safe storage of spent fuel.

Throughout his account of doom and gloom, Nikiforuk nonetheless delights readers with bang-on quotes. For example, CIBC’s chief economist Jeff Rubin offers this gem: “You know you are at the bottom of the ninth when you have to schlep a tonne of sand to get a barrel of oil.” Author Thomas Friedman provides another: “The price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in opposite directions.”

The seriousness of this issue is evident in the book’s first section, entitled “Declaration of a Political Emergency.” In rapid-fire succession, Nikiforuk lists the most egregious and destructive aspects of the industry. He argues convincingly in Tar Sands that neither Alberta nor Canada has come to terms with the true extent of the environmental devastation.

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Andrew Nikiforuk, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008, 208 pages

This review originally appeared in New Eco Books, Issue 36.3. Subscribe now to get more book reviews in your mailbox!

Reviewer Information

Clayton Ruby is a barrister and solicitor in Toronto, whose practice often reflects environmental and animal-rights concerns.

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