This Sunday, February 17, one of the largest rallies ever held in the US on climate-change will take place in front of the White House. The Sierra Club, 350.org, together with over a hundred partners have helped organize the DC event. Key goals include decisive action on carbon pollution, increased commitment to the phasing out of fossil fuels in preference for clean renewable energy and the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project.
The timing of the DC rally is critical. The call to reject the Keystone XL pipeline will be front and center and Sunday's rally will deliver that message loud and clear. If the pipeline gets the go-ahead it would carry around 700,000 barrels of the tar sands product daily to refineries on the Gulf Coast, posing an environmental threat and contributing to growing climate-change woes.
Bill McKibbin of 350.org has characterized the tar sands as a "carbon bomb." Writing in TomDispatch McKibbin said: “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.”
Alberta tar sands extraction and processing has contributed to the destruction of boreal forests, to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the creation of toxic wastewater.
A recent government-backed study that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms that tar sands mining is polluting northern waterways. Layers of sediment dating back 50 years taken from small lakes north of Fort McMurray were tested by researchers for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - groups of chemicals that are often carcinogenic.
The increase in the level of PAHs was found to be consistent with the pace of tar sands development. The level of PAHs has risen since the 1960's when development first got going. PAH levels were found to be 2.5 - 23 times greater than levels from about 1960. This is even occurring in areas some distance from the tar sands. A remote lake, around 90km to the north showed PAH levels that were elevated and rising.
Writing in The Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk notes that "PAHs (and heavy metals) are well known components of Athabasca bitumen and some such as benzo(a)pyrene, can cause cancers in humans while others are suspected of being both animal and human carcinogens. PAHS can also impede and affect fetal growth during the first trimester."
Water ecologist, David Schindler, told The Tyee that the study should "deep six once and for all the bullshit that all pollution from the tar sands is natural."
[Schindler]: "It shows that as production rises, so does the pollution fallout from the project. It also implies that we need some means of controlling these stack emissions. It also reinforces the now well-documented fact that past monitoring has been substandard. This sort of contamination should have been easily detected a decade or more ago."
A New York Times article provides some detail about the possible ways in which tar sands chemicals end up polluting lakes:
The chemicals may become wind-borne when giant excavators dig them up and then deposit them into 400-ton dump trucks.
Upgraders at some oil sands projects that separate the oil bitumen from its surrounding sand are believed to emit PAHs. And some scientists believe that vast ponds holding wastewater from that upgrading and from other oil sand processes may be leaking PAHs and other chemicals into downstream bodies of water.
Tar sands' diluted bitumen or "dilbit" is a cocktail laced with chemicals to allow for easier flow through the pipes. Once in the pipeline the acidic and corrosive mix poses additional risks.
In July, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying dilbit burst near Marshall, Michigan, polluting the Kalamazoo River watershed. When there is a spill the chemical dilutants evaporate. Marshall residents reported 'strong noxious odors' and suffered a variety of physical symptoms. These included vomiting, nausea, burning eyes and migraines. Children were particularly badly affected.
Bitumen is a nightmare to clean up. In water it sinks, unlike regular crude that floats on the surface. The time and costs involved in repairing the damage go well beyond mop-up operations for regular crude.
If the XL pipeline is rejected, the future of Alberta tar sands development will hit a major roadblock. Alberta has the capacity to produce a lot more oil than Canada consumes. Tar sands viability is heavily dependent on exportation, especially given the requirement for refineries that can handle the stuff. The Keystone XL pipeline is a major life-line in this regard. A rejection would likely contribute to the lowering of the price of tar sands oil, discouraging investment.
The decision on the pipeline will impact long-term outcomes on the climate-change front. This is why it is crucial to keep up the pressure calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.
To get involved go to 350.org's sign-up page - here.