Tar sands, or oil sands, or, to give them their correct name, bituminous sands, are sands which contain naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water and a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum termed bitumen. Until recently, tar sands reserves were not considered part of the world’s oil reserves. However, higher oil prices and new technology have made it possible and profitable for them to be extracted and upgraded to usable products.
In order to extract the crude from tar sands, boreal forests in Alberta, Canada – some of the world’s last, intact rainforests and wildlife habitats that have taken 10,000 years to evolve – are being clear-felled and the soil beneath strip-mined. This mining process requires large amounts of fresh water and leaves behind giant toxic lakes, large enough to be seen from space, which are linked to abnormally high rates of cancer in downstream communities.
Separating the oil from bitumen requires energy for steam injection and refining – a process that generates two to four times the volume of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the production of conventional oil. Additionally, according to a recent US Environmental Protection Agency assessment, tar sands’ well-to-tank emissions are approximately 82 per cent higher than conventional oil.
Concerns have also been raised over the increased risk and potential harm that can be caused by transporting the raw form of tar sands oil through pipelines. Increasingly such pipelines are carrying diluted bitumen – a highly corrosive, acidic, and potentially unstable blend of thick raw bitumen and volatile natural gas liquid condensate – raising the risk of spills and damage to communities.
In spite of the well documented environmental impact and risk factors associated with tar sands, the US State Department looks set to green light the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project – a pipeline that will carry oil derived from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas – dealing an enormous blow to anti-tar sands campaigners.
Incredibly, in its environmental review of the controversial pipeline the US State Department found the proposed 1,700-mile pipeline (that will travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas) would not cause significant damage to the environment. This is a frustrating outcome for the many Americans who voted for Obama on the grounds that he promised to move the US away from its growing dependence on fossil fuels and address global warming. It is an even more disappointing outcome for those who believed Obama’s assurance that his presidency would change a political system dominated by lobbyists and their limited interests.
The US government is not the only government whose actions have failed to live up to its green rhetoric in recent times. The Nature Check report, compiled by 29 of the UK’s leading environmental groups and published in October by the umbrella body Wildlife and Countryside Link, assesses the UK government’s progress on the 16 commitments it has made to the natural environment using a traffic light rating system. Only two of the promises outlined in the government’s coalition agreement have been given a green approval rating in the report.
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, insists that the government is working to implement green policies, telling the BBC’s Today programme: ‘The government is 15 months into its life. You can’t expect it to achieve everything in the first year. ’ Yet in its first year, the policies of the Coalition government have included a new proposed planning system placing economic needs above environmental ones, an attempt to sell off the nation’s forests, and a controversial plan for tackling bovine TB. Ironically, it is the Government’s two commitments to wildlife overseas that are being met – with green lights given for new legislation opposing ivory sales and commercial whaling – while the commitments at home have all received either amber or red, meaning either insufficient progress has been made or outright failure.
After this disappointing year of environmental policy from a government whose Prime Minister promised that this would be ‘the greenest government ever, ’ it was hoped that the recent Conservative Party Conference would provide much needed momentum to the green economy. The hope was in vain. The Chancellor’s response to the further downgrade of UK growth forecasts was a statement to the effect that we were not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business, followed by a commitment not to cut the UK’s carbon emissions faster than other countries in Europe.
It’s not all bad news, however. Australians are some of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, largely because around 80 per cent of their electricity is generated by coal-fired power stations, and since 2006 tackling climate change has dropped from 1st to 10th place in the Australian national policy agenda, a clear demonstration that environmental policy comes 2nd to the economy, or indeed, 10th.
Nonetheless in October the Australian government managed to bring one of the world’s biggest carbon emissions trading schemes one step closer to reality after MPs passed two bills that are expected to be voted into law by senators next month. And this in spite of manufacturing and business lobby groups condemning the tax, which they say will cost jobs, and the Conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott, pledging ‘in blood’ to repeal the tax if elected.
The carbon tax aims to cut Australia’s emissions by 5 per cent from year 2000 levels by the year 2020, and bring emissions down 80 per cent by 2050. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, hailed the bills’ passage through the lower house of parliament as a historic reform. ‘This is a significant day for the Australian nation, not just for today but for the generations to come,’ she said.
Leadership is what is required if we are going to meet the challenges we are increasingly faced with in our resource-constrained world. The UK Chancellor is right to say that we are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. But equally, it could be argued that without a planet there would be no business and that instead of making the same old mistakes of the past we should be driving innovation.
Tempting though it may be for our governments to turn away from the natural environment in favour of economic growth in these financially straitened times, it is this short-term attitude which is letting down the very citizens who voted them into power.
Jared Diamond in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, identifies five factors which contribute to societal disintegration: climate change, loss of trade, hostile neighbours, self-imposed environmental degradation, and political intransigence. Interestingly, it is the last two factors on Diamond’s list which heralded the collapse of Easter Island, whose leaders let their people cut down every tree. The result was soil erosion, starvation, cannibalism and, ultimately, population demise.
We are felling more than an acre-and-a-half of our rainforests every second of every day and fishing our oceans bare. The rate of species loss is greater now than at any time in human history, with extinctions occurring at rates hundreds of times higher than normal extinction rates. We are knowingly raising global temperatures by fostering an economy reliant on fossil fuels, poisoning lakes and rivers with mining and factory effluent and allowing the human population, now theoretically seven billion, to rise unchecked. Diamond hoped his book would teach us to learn from history. Confronted by the pace and scale of environmental degradation being carried out daily, it is hard to see what, if anything, has been learnt.