The following is the first in a series of pieces highlighting how our dependence on oil has pushed us to the age of ‘Extreme Energy’ where increasingly risky environmental and public health trade-offs are accepted as the status quo in the ravenous pursuit of energy.

by Jessica Hendricks, Program Coordinator

If you have been paying attention to the global debate on climate change, most likely you have come across the tar sands, one of the dirtiest types of crude oil out there.

Tar sands oil comes from the pristine forests of Canada, surprisingly the largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States. Tar sands is crude oil mixed with sand and rocks meaning it takes much more processing to become a final product like gasoline. Imagine actually squeezing the oil out of rocks and sand and you get a pretty good idea what tar sands is like. The production and refining process emits 3-5 times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil and uses about twice as much water, a natural resource we can’t waste, as conventional oil drilling. It has been predicted that by 2015 tar sands could emit more greenhouse gases than the nation of Denmark (population 5.4 million).

Tar sands “oil” is the oil industry’s scheme to scrape the dirtiest, most dangerous waste at the bottom of the barrel.

This last ditch effort has propelled industry and consumers into uncharted territory, marking extreme devastation and dire consequences to human health and the environment. This is what happens when our oil addiction exceeds our natural resources.

What ever happened to us trying to be smarter about our energy?  Protecting our children’s future and “Going Green”?

Aside from the carbon emissions, tar sands is ruining fresh water. Tar sands uses 2-4.5 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced.  Where’s the efficiency there? The waste water ends up in toxic cesspools or ‘tailing lagoons’ which have never been reclaimed.  In 2008, 1600+ birds fatally fell victim to a tailing lagoon in Alberta, Canada when they tried landing in one of the oily, poorly managed waste pools. And, an analysis using industry data estimated that these lagoons already leak over a billion gallons of contaminated water into the environment each year!

The impact is not limited to wildlife. First Nations, three native bands in the Northwest Territory, have united against tar sands production. The residents know that the toxins in the Athabasca River are killing the people.

According to the Edmonton Journal article, “Their former community physician reported a disproportionate number of rare cancers in the community of 1,200 on the northwest corner of Lake Athabasca, but the provincial government and Health Canada have resisted calls for baseline health tests.” Indirectly, the economy in some communities depends on fishing which is threatened by the toxic runoff.

Tar sands is obviously a step in the wrong direction from an environmental aspect and from a public health standpoint.

But the effects of dirty crude are also felt far from the wastewater ponds of Canada. Since the synthetic heavy crude “oil” produced from tar sands is laden with more toxins than conventional oil, communities in the US living next to oil refineries are faced with more toxins in the emissions released daily from these giant refineries.

Tar sands is creeping into US communities like Detroit, Michigan; Whiting, Indiana; Wood River, Illinois; Toledo, OH; Elk Point, South Dakota, and Richmond, California. These communities are mostly low income, people of color communities that are already overburdened with pollution from existing refinery and industrial operations.

Tar sands production will increase the emissions in these communities. According to BP and Marathon’s own permits for expansion, tar sands refining will increase emissions of heavy metals, like lead, and sulfurs which trigger asthma attacks.

The people of Southwest Detroit are all too familiar with toxic air living in the shadow of the Marathon oil refinery. Southwest Detroit has the highest rates of asthma and cancer amongst children in the state. Marathon’s plans to add more toxins to the air by expanding the refinery to process tar sands crude is raising red flags. Seriously, do these people need anymore pollution? We (as a country) should be focused on building Detroit up, not dumping more toxic pollution onto its poorest residents.

And in Whiting, Indiana, another BP disaster is in the making. This time with the largest oil refinery expansion in the Midwest, again to process tar sands crude.  BP forgot to include flare emissions into their permits and, even worse, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management approved the permits without asking about the flare emissions. When the community and other environmental groups filed a legal complaint, the US EPA finally did some research and appealed the incorrect and toxic air permit.

Who wants to live next to that?

Not the residents of Elk Point, South Dakota. The community has been battling proposals to construct a tar sands refinery, the first new oil refinery in the US in 30 years!  Refinery consultants have actually admitted that this refinery will emit more CO2 than any other refinery in the US, so much more that the refinery, Hyperion, is objecting to their own permit, saying that it is too stringent. A refinery in this community would forever change the way of life in this rural, farming area.

Let’s invest in cleaner energy for all of the neighboring communities, for public health and for environmental justice.  Lets stand up and fight for our air quality like residents and environmental groups of Richmond, California.  After years of activism, the community finally put a halt to Chevron’s expansion which was to include the refining of tar sands and heavy crude oil.  Hopefully, Chevron’s Richmond plant will finally begin serious emissions reductions and everyone will be able to breath easier.

Tar sands is a move in the wrong direction. It is too dirty, too dangerous and too expensive for local communities and residents everywhere.