Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent / Andrew Nikiforuk -- Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2008.

While many governments and oil companies are steadfastly denying the imminent peak of world wide oil production, their words are belied by their actions. In Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk describes the headlong rush to develop perhaps the most expensive and dirtiest hydrocarbon reserve on the planet: the tar sands of Alberta. Nikiforuk notes that 60% of all global oil investments are made in the these tar sands and that the consequences for the people of Alberta and the Mackenzie River Watershed are devastating.

To turn the tar sands into oil involves a mining operation that makes Appalachian mountain top removal look non-invasive. The oil (or more precisely, the bitumen) is a tar-like substance that is mixed with soil, sand, and rock. To remove it, the land is carved up and steamed using, huge quantities of water. Left behind are gigantic lakes formed inside levees. These lakes contain poisonous tailings. The size and expense of the operation defies imagination.

Beyond the environmental disaster, Nikiforuk describes that impact that this development has had on the civic epicenter of it all: the boom city of Fort McMurray. Crime, drugs, traffic deaths, inflation, and the erosion of public health are among the social disasters that accompany the development. Nikiforuk observes that Alberta and Canada in general are quickly becoming "petrostates," in which the economy is organized to export oil to the world, in particular, to the United States. Characteristic of petrostates, the government of Alberta is becoming increasingly undemocratic with decisions made without public oversight and in compliance with the wishes of oil company executives.

Tar Sands is a testament to the power of the international demand for cheap energy, and the willingness of people to sacrifice so much to cash in on that demand.  It is also worth noting that if the tar sands are fully exploited, the amount of carbon dioxide that will be released into the atmosphere and oceans will likely push global warming well beyond what is already an extremely dangerous level.

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