In the ongoing coverage of the plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline to pump crude tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, a key issue is too often ignored: the ecological horror caused by the oil’s extraction. The vast tar sands surface mines of Alberta are among the most destructive industrial projects in human history, having already transformed more than 260 square miles of wetlands and forest into a post-apocalyptic moonscape.
That is not a typo: four tons = one barrel.
To get to the sand, workers first scrape off all trees, soil, grasses, and wildlife, then dig down as deep as 250 feet. Syncrude’s mine near Fort McMurray, now more than 30 years old, has gobbled up 73 square miles of land and is the biggest mine of any kind in the world.
The tar sand is transported in cartoonishly big vehicles, like this Caterpillar dump truck, which can carry up to 100 tons. The largest mining truck in use in Canada, the Caterpillar 797B (not pictured), can haul up to 400 tons in a single load. Its tires are 12 feet in diameter, and the driver sits 21 feet above the road.
Only 10 to 15 percent of the harvested sand contains bitumen—the ultra-viscous tar-like substance that eventually gets processed into gasoline. The rest gets dumped into tailing “ponds,” which are actually unlined, sludge-filled lakes so big they can be seen from space and so toxic that workers use propane cannons to scare away birds that try to land in them. The oil industry estimates that about 3 million gallons of tailing-pond runoff leaks into the Canadian groundwater supply daily.
Extracting and processing tar sands requires three to four times more energy than conventional oil drilling. The tar sands fields of Alberta are already Canada’s single greatest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and the country has plans to double that output within 10 years. A relatively new extraction process, called steam-activated gravity drainage, does less damage to the landscape but will hasten climate disruption by opening up access to deeper tar sands deposits in an area the size of Florida.