For my country Canada and its present government which is acting like a lobby for the international fossil fuel industries:
A typical boreal forest pond which holds water during the dry season.
Our present leaders - the people of wealth and power—
do not know what it means to take a place seriously:
to think it worthy, for its own sake, of love and study and careful
work. They cannot take any place seriously because they must
be ready at any moment, by the terms of power and wealth
in the modern world, to destroy any place."
Wendell Berry, Atlantic Monthly, February 1991
Calypso Orchid (Fairy Slipper) found in the Athabasca boreal forest
A Brief History of the Athabasca Tar Sands Development
Someone asked me recently, "You are a Canadian, how did this happen?" I'll start back in the 18th century when First Nations used the heavy black tar they found oozing on the banks of the Athabasca River to seal their canoes. They brought a sample to the Hudson's Bay Company Post. In 1778, It was later "discovered" by Alexander MacKenzie, a fur-trader, explorer. In 1848, the first scientific study was made and in 1875 the first government sponsored survey of the tar sands was initiated.
Commerical interest in the Athabasca region of Alberta began around the end of the 19th century when the Canadian government realized that the fur trade didn't attract the average person. It produced a report calling the tar sands "the most extensive petroleum field in America, if not the world."
The government of Alberta did not give up and in 1932 issued a call for help to "unlock fully the oil reserves." In 1967, the first commercial operation began by an American, J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil (now Suncor). He built a mine and upgrader on the banks of the Athabasca River. This project lost money for years by producing the world's most expensive oil. A consortium of US owned major oil companies under the name Sycrude, took out a lease of 170,000 acres of the Athabasca area.
In 1973, the year of the OPEC oil embargo, Herman Kahn presented a tar sands development plan to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. At that time, biologists and ecologists warned against a development that would endanger the Athabasca river basin, a basin which contained one-fifth of Canada's fresh water. The Canadian government turned down Mr. Kahn's plan for economic reasons. Suncor was still plodding along cutting down the boreal forest and scraping off the muskeg to get the tar sands. In 1976 they discovered the bones of a woolly mammoth which now rest in the Provincial museum in Edmonton. (Another mammoth skeleton was found in 2006 near Fort McMurray's mine.) It proves that the muskeg forest soil was undisturbed for over 10,000 years before being exploited for tar sands.
The 1980's see a slow down of the tar sands extraction. The Canadian federal government under PM Pierre Trudeau announces the controversial National Energy Program to increase Canadian control and ownership of the energy industry. Oil companies complain that the NEP is discouraging foreign investment. The price of crude goes down.
Everything changes in the 1990's. Production of oil in the US is declining. Word of the tar sands bitumen spread to France, China, South Korea, Japan, Untied Arab Emirates, Russia and Norway. The Saudi-like Alberta government promised secure energy and low royalty fees of 1% until companies had paid off their multi-billion dollar investments. The Alberta government and the federal government of Canada paved the way for the Tar Sands Rush in the years 2000-2011.
In 2001 VP Dick Cheney drew up his National Energy Policy in secret with oil executives. Cheney highlighted the tar sands as "a pillar of sustained North American energy and security." By 2009, the US knew about the dark side of this oil boom. The US Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan think tank issued a report "Canadian Oil Sands" critical of the tar sands. It stated that natural gas availability and water scarcity and "public opposition due to local social and environmental impacts" could clog the bitumen pipeline.
[Reference: TAR SANDS: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
by Andrew Nikiforuk. Winner of the RachelCarson Environment Book Award.]
Where are the Athabasca Tar Sands? Where does Keystone XL begin?
In North East Alberta, Canada, in the lower reaches of the Athabasca River watershed, (the green section). At the top of the map is Fort Chipewayn on Athabaska Lake. It is the home of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Metis who have been fishing, hunting and trapping in the area for centuries. The Tar Sands are under 54,000 square miles of Boreal Forest and muskeg and it is all slated to be clear cut and scraped or steamed in order to extract the tar sands.
The Athabasca River Basin. The Athabasca river's source is the Columbia glacier and it eventually flows into the Arctic Ocean.
[Caution if you visit the RAMP site, it is funded by oil companies so you will not get accurate assessments of their damage to the environment.]
The Boreal Forests of Canada
Boreal comes from the Greek name of the god of the north wind. They are cold and wet with meandering rivers, ponds and bogs (called muskeg).
Scientists have identified the 1.2 billion acre Canadian boreal forest as the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystem remaining on earth. Rivaling the Amazon in size and ecological importance, Canada’s boreal supports the world's most extensive network of pure lakes, rivers and wetlands and captures and stores twice as much carbon as tropical forests. It teems with wildlife—including billions of migratory songbirds, tens of millions of ducks and geese, and millions of caribou. The Canadian boreal is an irreplaceable global treasure.
The Boreal Forest Biodiversity
They support an abundance of wildlife, trees and plants. They support the endangered woodland caribou and are home to 85 species of mammals.
The incredible beauty of the boreal forest:I have never been to a boreal forest but I have travelled on a train five times across Canada. The train goes right through a boreal forest on the north shore of Lake Superior and into Manitoba. It was endless trees, rivers, ponds and it was full of life.
Extracting the tar sands
There are basically two ways to extract the bitumen from the tar sands after the trees are clear cut and the muskeg is scraped away. One way is open pit mining and the other way is steam-assisted gravity drainage or SAGD. Open pit mining is self-explanatory but SAGD involves in high pressure steam injections deep into the bitumen reserves.
This is the end product that the oil industries are working for and they are going to destroy 54,000 miles of boreal forest to get it. This is what is flowing in the upper section of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Bitumen diluted into DilBit on the right.
Greenpeace lists the Athabasca Tar Sands as an Environmental Disaster
Destruction of the Boreal Forest
Vast areas of cleared forest
Garth Lenz presents these stunning high resolution, large images contrasting the boreal forest with tar sands open pit mining.
Witness: "To the Last Drop" Part One, 23:30 min.
Witness: "To the Last Drop" Part Two, 24:03 min. (Mentions the Keystone XL)
I'll give the last word to an environmentalist from my home town, Prof. Andrew Weaver, Deputy Leader of the Green Party of British Columbia, Canada
Andrew Nikiforuk's Twelve Steps to Energy Sanity in Canada
from his book TAR SANDS: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.
1. Admit the magnitude and the complexity of the energy crisis.
2. Slow down tar sands development and cap production at 2 million barrels a day.
3. Establish a national strategy for energy security and innovation.
4. Impose a carbon tax with a 100% dividend.
5. Challenge the first law of Petropolitics.
6. Challenge continental energy integration.
7. Relocalize food production.
8. Abandon economic dead-end activities such as carbon capture and storage.
9. Orient all rural and urban planning to renewable energy
10. Pick the lowest hanging fruit first. [conservation]
11. Don't wait for government.
12. Re-negotiate NAFTA.