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    September 07, 2011 | 1:57 PM

    Tar sands: The wrong kind of “unconventional”

    Source: NASA

    Last week, we blogged about what it was like to observe and take part in the demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. Protests outside the White House are finished now, but it’s not too late to voice your opinion to the State Department as it considers whether to approve the pipeline.

    Of course, there are many good reasons why people in the U.S. are concerned about the construction of the pipeline. In this post though, I’d like to set aside other very real issues like the risk of a spill from the pipeline, and simply discuss what tar sands mining means for global climate change. With or without the pipeline, as long as tar sands are mined, made into a dirty fuel and burned, we’ve got a problem.

    Oil derived from tar sands isn’t acquired in the typical “drill, baby, drill” fashion. Tar sands are a sludgy combination of bitumen, clay, sand and water. Bitumen can be refined into usable oil, but to get at it, tar sands first have to be mined and then processed. For this reason, tar sands have been called an “unconventional oil”.

    As you might expect, extracting “unconventional oil” is really energy intensive. Mining and milking semi-solid tar sands to make a barrel of oil requires a lot more energy than simply pumping up a barrel’s worth of oil from the ground. That’s why overall, gasoline produced from Alberta’s tar sands is about 17% more greenhouse-gas-intensive compared to the type of crude oil typically consumed in the United States.

    But that’s not all. When tar sands are mined, large parcels of Alberta’s boreal forest are devastated. And forests, of course, soak up carbon pollution. In destroying them, we lose a major carbon “sink.” In a 2009 report, Global Forest Watch Canada reported that approximately 70,000 hectares (about 132,000 football fields!) of boreal forest has already been affected by mining activities.

    The way I see it, ravaging forests to squeeze oil out of tar sands just screams desperate. It makes talking about our dependency on oil in terms of “addiction” seem all the more appropriate. Given the realities of climate change, shouldn’t we be investing in unconventional ways to break our addiction to oil instead of using “unconventional” ways to feed it? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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