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Alberta Tar Sands: Dirty Oil

May 9th, 2010

The recent oil-related ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico raises questions about the sources of the energy on which we are so dependent.  An increasingly important source of oil for the United States is the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

The Alberta Tar sands, an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum called bitumen, have been referred to as the most damaging project on the planet. According to Greenpeace, emissions from tar sands extraction could grow to between 127 and 140m tonnes by 2020, exceeding the current emissions of Austria, Portugal, Ireland and Denmark. If proposed expansion proceeds,it will result in the loss of vast tracts of boreal forest and peat bogs of a territory the size of England.

The extraction of petroleum from tar sands is a very energy and water intensive process. It is said to generate two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil.

Oil companies are asking for a new pipeline to be built to carry this dirty oil to the United States, the largest consumer of tar sands oil. Environmental and faith groups are opposing further tar sands development.

Catholic Bishop Luc Bouchard, whose diocese extends over the tar sands, issued a strong pastoral letter on the tar sands last year: “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands.”

The letter concludes, “even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment,” and “the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified.”

Bishop Bouchard notes that “The environmental liabilities that result from the various steps in this process are significant and include”:

  • Destruction of the boreal forest eco-system
  • Potential damage to the Athabasca water shed
  • The release of greenhouse gases
  • Heavy consumption of natural gas
  • The creation of toxic tailings ponds

He writes at length on all five, and concludes:

“Any one of the above destructive effects provokes moral concern, but it is when the damaging effects are all added together that the moral legitimacy of oil sands production is challenged.”

Read the Bishop’s letter…

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