DeAnne Riddle: Eye in the sky over Alberta’s tar sands pits

Last modified: Friday, September 04, 2015


I’m very concerned about both the North East Direct gas pipeline, which would affect our region, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring tar mixed with solvents from Alberta to our Gulf Coast.

Both would carry fossil fuels from deposits, which if fully exploited, would increase greenhouse gas emissions disastrously, leading to potentially devastating sea level rise. We need to cut our production and use of these fuels now.

Along with two cousins and my brother, I own a small piece of Nebraska farmland through which the Keystone pipeline, unless stopped, will be built. We refused to sign an easement agreement with TransCanada for number of years, but relented last year when threatened with eminent domain. I don’t feel good about giving in, but I felt that I couldn’t saddle my cousin, who manages the farm, with something she didn’t feel she could face.

Instead, I donated the money I received to Bold Nebraska to help others fight easement suits.

I have also written to a TransCanada official about my strong opposition to this pipeline. He responded that it will be the safest in the world and that the extraction of the tar, because of “in situ” mining methods, will have minimal adverse effects on the environment. Not only do I have strong doubts about this — pipeline spills are not infrequent — I am also aware that climate change has significant environmental impacts.

He also argues that the bitumen will get to market one way or another, but I believe that once the pipeline infrastructure is in place, more will be extracted than before and the bitumen will flow for the next 30 to 40 years.

Since I wanted to be able to address his arguments with eyewitness facts, this summer my husband and I travelled to Fort McMurray in northern Alberta to see for ourselves how the tar sands are extracted and what the environmental impacts are.

The last four hours of the 11-hour drive from the U.S. border, through pristine boreal forest, made it clear to me what is a stake.

We had made reservations at the Marianna Lake Lodge, an hour south of Fort McMurray. I expected a luxurious hotel on a pretty lake. Instead we found a series of trailers parked in the middle of a muddy clearing. The lodge provides housing for workers temporarily in the area. Most work 12-hour days or nights for several weeks, earn good money and then escape home for a break.

In Fort McMurray we hired a small airplane to tour the area. In this region, the bitumen is near the surface, so there are many open-pit mines. I was horrified to see huge black scars on the land that alternated with tailing ponds, where water polluted by the extraction process is dumped.

The sound of cannon split the air to keep birds and wildlife away from the poisoned water.

We also noticed many small roads leading to in situ mines. In-situ mining uses steam to melt the underground tar so that it can be pumped out. It is touted as clean; however, the Pembina Institute reports that it produces 2.5 times the amount of CO2 and almost four times as much sulfur dioxide per barrel of oil as open-pit mining. It also requires polluting a barrel of water for each barrel of oil.

Now, about half the bitumen produced is though in-situ mining, but the proportion will increase since the majority of Alberta tar is too deep to be surface mined.

The Oil Sands Discovery Centre, a museum paid for in part by the oil companies, says “water usage, habitat fragmentation and air quality” remain challenges. Recent studies show increased cancer rates among First Nation tribes who eat fish from the rivers.

In spite of these problems, the Alberta government is very supportive of expansion and anticipates continued rapid growth.

On our way back, we stopped in Fort Saskatchewan, near Edmonton, where we met, Anne, an activist fighting for clean air to breathe.

Her formerly semi-rural suburb of Edmonton has become the home of oil refineries. She worries about her children playing outside, about the health effects of polluted air, and that she won’t be able to sell her house to move elsewhere.

“Don’t worry,” she said one oil company official told her, “Tell us when you are showing your house, and we’ll cut the emissions that day.”

Our use of fossil fuels worldwide and the money to be gained from selling them is what drives the tar sands extraction. We need to find a way to curb our use of them to save our environment and our climate. Canada has an estimated 200 billion barrels of oil in the ground.

That’s where it should stay.

DeAnne Riddle lives in Amherst.


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