Saturday, February 21, 2009

They're Tar Sands, not Oil Sands!

It's a common practice. Euphemisms. When the mere name of something takes on negative connotations then change the name. When Allegheny Airlines gets dubbed Agony Airlines, change the name. Why would anyone want to buy death insurance? Let's call it life insurance.

And when the perception of the tar sands turns negative, no problem. We'll just call it the oil sands. Everybody loves oil. Hell, the world runs on oil. The only problem is, they're not oil sands.

What comes out of the tar sands is not oil. It is, in fact, tar, bitumen, the same sticky, smelly stuff they build roads with. With a lot of processing, using up a lot of energy and other precious resources like clean water, it can be turned into a synthetic oil which, with further processing using up a lot more energy and other resources, can be turned into gasoline. But it takes almost as much energy to produce a gallon of gasoline from tar sands as the energy you get out of the gallon of gasoline.

Oil, on the other hand (at least the easy to recover oil with which the oil age began) can return as much as a hundred times more energy than what it costs to process it. Even the more expensive, difficult to find, extract and process oil which we are dealing with today returns far more energy than what it costs to process it.

Euphemisms like oil sands are a form of whitewash having but one purpose. They cover up the less attractive, seamy side of the issue. Tar sands is, hands down, the dirtiest, most polluting source of energy on the planet. The once pristine environment of northern Alberta and the Yukon and Northwest Territories are being absolutely destroyed by the tar sands operations. People living in the region are developing cancers and other deadly diseases at an alarming rate far exceeding that in any other region of the country. Communities downstream on the Athabasca River can no longer use the water from that river.

The tar sands are not an energy boom. They are an energy boondoggle.

All the press of late focuses on the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants the tar sands operations generate. The pipedream of CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is touted as the answer to that problem, if it ever proves out and becomes economically viable.

But CCS will do nothing for cleaning up the massive containment ponds full of liquid toxins. It will do nothing to clean up the Athabasca River and the Arctic Ocean that are receiving all of the uncontained toxins. It will do nothing for restoring the environment that is being raped by the tar sands operations. Nature laid down a benign overburden of rock and soil above the tar-soaked sands over millions of years and built a bountiful natural environment despite the toxic swamp lying beneath it. That overburden is being progressively stripped away by tar sands operators, exposing the tar sands below. What is left when they shut down their operations and walk away is a toxic landscape incapable of supporting life even at a minimal level.

So let's stop with the euphemism. Even the label of tar sands does not adequately portray the horrific nature of what is being unleashed in the Athabasca region. But these recent attempts to further con the nation and the world into thinking the tar sands are harmless are bordering on the criminal. Let's call them what they are. Let's shut them down. And let's focus our efforts on figuring out how to undo the massive amount of damage that has already been done rather than trying to figure out how to continue that damage more efficiently and faster.

What the hell is the point of making a mistake as big as the tar sands without learning from it?