The majority of oil used by the United States as well as internationally soon may come from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Extracting oil from tar sands is an extremely costly and immensely dirty way of obtaining fuel. There is currently a plan to build a pipeline, the Keystone XL, which will run from the supply of tar sands in Albert down the western United States to refineries in Texas. There are two major concerns when dealing with the creation of this pipeline and the increased use of tar sands. There is the unavoidable fear that this pipe with leak partnered with the fact that refining tar sands causes far more greenhouse emissions than traditional oil extracting methods. Arguments for this toxic highway include the creations of American jobs and a strong need to free our country from our dependence on foreign oil. However recent studies have shown that if the Keystone XL is built, it could actually have the opposite effect on our economy. Eventually this project will leading to job loss and end up feeding the global market of dirty oil, all while causing repugnant negative externalities on the bodies of American citizens and doing irreversible damage to the earth.
The once the picturesque boreal forests of Canada’s Alberta province now has a vastly different landscape. Today this area is filled with filthy strip mines and tailing ponds so large they are visible from space. For here lies the world’s largest reserve of tar sands, a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen. Heavy black viscous oil, bitumen can be harvested and refined to yield a high amount of fossil fuel. However, mining and refining tar sand into usable oil is an extremely costly and complex process as compared to traditional oil excavating techniques. The tar sands, commonly referred to as oil sands, must first be extracted from the land. Unlike liquid oil, tar sands cannot simply be pumped from the ground through a well. Either strip mining or open pit mining is required for extraction. This type of surface mining uses large hydraulic and electrically powered shovels to dig up and transport the tar. If the tar is down deep enough, underground heating by compressed air and steam injections are applied. This process uses even more water and energy for excavation. After extraction, the separation process begins. The oil rich bitumen must first be separated from the clay, sand and water to be used. When the bitumen is separated it is still too viscous to even be refined. Next a process referred to as “upgrading” occurs. The thick bitumen requires dilution with lighter hydrocarbons to make it transportable by pipelines. Finally the oil is stable enough to be conveyed to refineries. Processing the tar uses enough natural gas in one day to heat three million homes. These extraction and separation methods also require vast amounts of water. For every gallon of oil produced, 35 gallons of water are required. Water is drawn mostly from the Athabasca River. The Athabasca is a major fresh water source for the people as well as the fauna of Alberta. All the water used for tar sands extraction draws down the surface water flow, adversely impacting stream habitats for fish and its other dependents. Approximately 90 percent of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in enormous man-made tailing ponds. These ponds remain stagnant with no plan of being removed or cleaned. A vast waste land of carcinogenic chemicals replaces a pristine forest. Many migrant birds stop in these ponds mistaking them for fresh water. The substances in the ponds are so thick and heavy that the birds drown and have little hope of being rescued. Reports of animals as large as a moose have also been consumed by the ponds. Toxic propane canons are commonly fired to keep ducks from landing in the tailings. Poisonous tailing ponds are considered to be one of the largest man-made structures ever, coming in at around 50 square kilometers. As if these monstrosities...
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