Saturday, May 29, 2010

Canada’s Faux Clean Oil Alternative

Government officials in Canada apparently are hoping that the uproar over the ongoing, oil-spill fueled ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will provide a boost to their domestic petroleum industry. Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice was quoted in MacLean’s magazine as saying that environmental risks from Alberta’s oil sands were “probably less than the kind of risks associated with offshore drilling.” In other words, getting oil by mining the plains of Alberta is better for Mother Earth than drilling holes in the Gulf seabed.

But as we explained in this post from last year, even when everything goes right, getting petroleum from Alberta’s oil sands is a very, very dirty process. As you might have assumed from the name, the oil sands are vast tracts in northern Canada where oil has been locked into soil deposits near the surface of the Earth. Rather than drilling wells, the oil sands are strip mined from the Alberta plains; but that is only the start of the process. The sands are then cooked down to release a sludge, which is refined into crude oil, which can then be refined again into gasoline or other petroleum products. The refining generates a lot of air pollution, the mining scars the plains and according to the indigenous Cree First Nation tribes who call the oil sands region home, the rise of the oil sands industry has caused a spike in cancer among their people.

Demand for oil sands-sourced petroleum has been growing in recent years – last year the US government agreed to build the “Alberta Clipper” pipeline that, when completed, will bring 800,000 barrels of oil sands oil into the United States every day; demand has also grown from Europe as well. For now, Canadian government officials are happy to promote the oil sands as a spill-free petroleum alternative, meanwhile environmental groups like Greenpeace plan to step up their campaign against the oil sands, noting that one of the biggest investors in Alberta’s oil industry in recent years has been BP.
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