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Canadian Activists Urge Obama to Reject Environmentally Destructive Oil Extraction from Alberta’s Tar Sands

StoryFebruary 19, 2009
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President Barack Obama is heading to Canada today for his first foreign trip as president. A coalition of environmental groups are urging Obama to cut back on America’s dependence on oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Greenpeace says the tar sands generate three to five times as much greenhouse gas pollution as the production of conventional oil. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Juan, is it “Yes, we Canada”?


Well, President Barack Obama is heading to Canada today for his first foreign trip as president. Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are expected to discuss trade issues, energy and the environment. A coalition of environmental groups is urging President Obama to cut back on America’s dependence on oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Canada now exports more oil to the United States than any other country. About 75 percent of Canadian oil comes from the Alberta tar sands.


Extracting and upgrading synthetic crude oil from tar sands is incredibly energy-intensive. According to Greenpeace, it generates three to five times as much greenhouse gas pollution as the production of conventional oil.

On Wednesday, a group of Greenpeace activists hung a pair of banners over a bridge in Ottawa that read “Welcome President Obama” and “Climate Leaders Don’t Buy Tar Sands.”

Mike Hudema is with us from Ottawa. He’s a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada, longtime activist from Alberta, Canada.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mike. Explain what the tar sands are. I think people will be shocked to hear how much oil the US gets from Canada.


Well, definitely. The tar sands are the largest energy and industrial project right now on the face of the planet. And they’re much unlike conventional oil operations. To get a single barrel of oil from the tar sands, it does require three to five times as much energy as a conventional barrel of oil. In addition to that, it requires about three to five barrels of fresh water to get a single barrel of oil out of the tar sands. And when you consider that over 1.3 million barrels of oil are produced every single day, it’s quite a dramatic impact.

In addition, tar sands are very unlike conventional oil operations. What you’re getting out of the ground is not a liquid substance, but a very viscous heavy substance, much like tar, called bitumen. To get that out of the ground, of course, you know, requires vast amounts of energy, but the extraction process is fundamentally different, as well. So you’re not looking at traditional pump and jack wells, like conventional oil operations, but you’re looking at either a process of creating vast strip mines, much like coal strip mining, where you basically scrape away the boreal forest, all the — everything above the earth’s surface, and then you’re slowly carving out these mines that are, in some cases, over a hundred meters deep.

In other cases, you’re building deep in situ technology where you’re creating these vast well pads, using natural gas or coal to superheat steam, which is then pumped underneath the ground to superheat the earth to basically melt the substance so that you can take it out. So, as you can imagine, that process is very destructive. The area available for tar sands leasing is about 149,000 square kilometers, which in American terms is about the size of the state of Florida. So, you’re looking at vast impacts on fish, on animal species and, of course, First Nations in the area, and then all of us, when you look at some of the climate and water impacts of the tar sands development.


Well, President Obama discussed the Alberta tar sands during an interview on CBC this week. He was asked about the issue by CBC host Peter Mansbridge.

    PETER MANSBRIDGE: A lot of oil and gas comes to the United States from Canada, and even more in the future with oil sands development. Now, there are some in your country and Canada, as well, who feel the oil sands is dirty oil because of the extraction process. What do you think? Is it dirty oil?

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, what we know is that oil sands create a big — creates a big carbon footprint. And so, the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces, is how do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change. And that’s one of the reasons why the stimulus bill that I’ll be signing today contains billions of dollars towards clean energy development.

    I think to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they’re emitted into the atmosphere — and ultimately, I think this can be solved by technology — I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things, not just like oil sands, but also coal. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we have our own home-grown problems in terms of dealing with a cheap energy source that creates a big carbon footprint.

    And so, we’re not going to be able to deal with any of these issues in isolation. The more that we can develop technologies that tap alternative sources of energy, but also contain the environmental damage of fossil fuels, the better off we’re going to be.


That was President Obama discussing with CBC his view on the tar sands issue. Mike Hudema, the actual process by which those tar sands are turned into oil, how does that occur?


Well, there’s two methods that I talked about briefly. One is by creating these vast open pit strip mines, which are really very much like coal strip mines. And so, you’re looking at scraping away everything above the topsoil. Industry likes to refer to it as overburden. We like to call it boreal forest or ecosystems. All of that is scraped away. There’s also a vast amount of wetlands in the area, so all of those are drained. And then you start carving into the earth. And so, you’re building these mines that in some cases are over a hundred meters deep, kilometers and kilometers or miles and miles wide. And they’re very vast. They use the largest steam shovels in the world, the largest dump trucks in the world to excavate the dirt as fast as possible so that they can get to the bitumen deposits. So that’s one type of extraction method.

The other type, that is — you know, looks and industry refers to it as more environmentally sensitive, but the impacts are actually more severe than the mining operations, are what is called deep in situ, or SAG-D operations, steam-assisted gravity drilling. And basically, what happens in these operations is you build a network of gigantic well pads. And so, in order to get to the well pads, of course, you need roads and infrastructure, and so the impact on the surrounding area is just as vast as the mining operations. Once you build these well pads, what you’re using is natural gas or coal to superheat steam. You’ll pump that underneath the ground, which of course, you know, will superheat the earth to try and melt this very viscous substance so that they can actually suck it out. Of course, you know, the deep in situ actually uses more energy and uses more water than the mining operations and so is very impactful from a water perspective, from a human rights perspective, and then definitely from a climate perspective. It definitely pushes us in the wrong direction at a time where we need to be reducing our emissions, not increasing them.

And with the tar sands, they’re the largest cause of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada. By 2020, they will potentially emit over 141 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the air every single year. To put that in perspective, that’s almost double what all the cars and light trucks in all of Canada produce. So it’s more than entire countries, is what’s coming out of the tar sands in Alberta.


So, Mike Hudema, the President says that US and Canada should collaborate on ways to capture carbon and then store it to prevent greenhouse gases from being emitted into the atmosphere, but a group of 50 prominent Canadians sent Obama a letter yesterday, saying it would be wrong to have faith in untried methods. They said, quote, “Costly and unproven technological fixes, such as carbon capture and storage, do not provide silver bullet solutions to addressing emissions from tar sands.” Mike Hudema, who is pushing this?


Well, definitely the people that are pushing it are the Alberta government, the federal government, and Prime Minister Harper is definitely at the lead of that. And then, of course, in the tar sands, you have every major international oil company being involved in the extraction. And so ,you have oil companies from around the world, from Exxon, Imperial, Shell, Total, Statoil, Hydro, British Petroleum. Everybody is wanting to get a piece of the tar sands, because it is a money-making opportunity for them, but of course it comes with an ever-growing environmental and human rights price tag.

And when you talk about carbon capture and sequestration, definitely we don’t see it as a — we see it more as a smokescreen than a silver bullet. What you have is the federal government and the provincial government here in Canada, convened a task force to look into the possibilities of carbon capture when it comes to the tar sands, and what the task force’s own findings were was that it had very little implications when it comes to tar sands because of how many different point sources of emissions that you have within the tar sands and because of the variability within that. So, when you have the government’s own advisers saying that there’s a very limited role, it’s hard to put any faith in carbon capture at all.


And what percentage of Canada’s own supply of oil and of the United States is dependent on the tar sands?


Well, definitely a hug percentage. Canada, of course, is the largest supplier of oil to the United States, and the majority of that is coming from the tar sands. So, there definitely is a huge dependency issue.

Where we are seeing very hopeful signs are on things like, where President Obama finally allowed states to increase fuel economy standards for the first time in decades. And so, seeing that is a real sign that we’re starting to decrease our dependency on tar sands fuels.

The other thing that provides a very hopeful sign coming from the US is states like California that have implemented a low carbon fuel standard, which is also going to be potentially adopted by thirteen Northeastern states. And then Obama has talked about making it a national low carbon fuel standard, as well, and what that would do is really look at, you know, the greenhouse footprint of the type of sources that are coming into the US fuel supply and would slowly start to eliminate those sources that have a higher greenhouse gas footprint. When you look at the tar sands —


Mike Hudema, we’re going to have to end it there, speaking to us from Ottawa, with Greenpeace. Thanks so much for joining us.

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