You’ve doubtless heard about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an underground line that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, across the United States to refineries in Texas.
The line has been opposed because of the damage it could cause to the environment, and supported because of the jobs and new energy supplies it would create. (Although opponents maintain that once the oil gets to Texas, it would be refined for export to overseas markets, not for U.S. consumption.)
David Lavallee, a teacher and counselor in West Vancouver, British Columbia, wants Americans to know what is happening on the other end of the proposed pipeline.
He wants Americans to understand the damage caused to the planet — water, air, people, wildlife and natural areas — by the method via which tar sands oil is extracted from the Earth and to oppose the pipeline because of the “dirty” industry it supports.
Lavallee explains his position in a documentary titled “White Water, Black Gold” that will be one of five films shown Saturday, March 17, during the seventh annual Environmental Film Fest at Augustana College in Rock Island. The film fest is sponsored by the Eagle View chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization.
Other films to be shown are about honeybee colony collapse, coal mining, the death of Western forests and an upbeat look at three friends who travel the United States looking for the environmental good, bad and weird.
If Lavallee had his way, the entire tar sands industry would be abandoned as too destructive to the world.
He is up against incredibly strong interests, however.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior, much of the world’s oil (more than 2 trillion barrels) is in the form of tar sands, and the largest such deposits are in Canada.
Already, they account for 40 percent of Canada’s oil production, and the industry is expanding rapidly. About 16 percent of U.S. crude oil comes from Canada (via already-constructed pipelines), and a substantial portion of that is from tar sands, Lavallee said.
Tar sands produce jobs and energy. But Lavallee says the cost is too high.
Tar sands oil is not like what one commonly thinks of as oil, a liquid that is extracted by drilling, a relatively efficient and non-destructive process. Conventional oil requires 1 “barrel” of energy to produce 100 barrels of oil, a good ratio, Lavallee said.
Tar sands, on the other hand, are a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy viscous oil. The bitumen cannot be pumped from the ground; instead, deposits are strip-mined or, more commonly, extracted via a process using large amounts of water, heated to such a degree that the oil is separated from the sand.
Tar sands require 1 “barrel” of energy, including natural gas, for 2 barrels of oil, a precipitous drop in terms of energy efficiency when compared with conventional oil.
“Can civilization continue on that ratio?” Lavallee asks.
In addition to the energy used, extraction uses large amounts of water — 2.5 to 4 barrels of water for 1 barrel of oil, he said.
Then, up to 90 percent of the water ends up in what are called “tailings” lakes because it is too toxic to go back into a river, Lavallee said. Together, those lakes are the size of Lake Erie, he said. And the water just stays in those lakes because there is no way to recycle it.
In a world with a growing need for water, the tar sands industry uses too much, Lavallee says. And if the tailing lakes failed to contain the water, the spill would contaminate rivers and entire watersheds.
The industry also drains down supplies of natural gas, and extraction produces three times the greenhouse gas emissions the production of conventional oil does, he added.
Lavallee got the idea for his documentary several years ago while working as a hiking guide at Jasper National Park’s Columbia Icefield, a surviving remnant of the thick ice mass that once mantled most of western Canada’s mountains. Water flowing out of the glacier forms the Athabasca River, the source of the water for the tar sands mining.
Despite his work with a depressing subject, Lavallee retains a sense of optimism for the future and for growing alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power.
Our political, cultural and economic structures will need to adjust, he says.
“I’m seeing lots of signs of hope,” he adds.
Some individuals across the globe are poised for change. He cites people such as Polly Higgins, “an earth lawyer” who is advocating for international laws against “ecocide,” much like genocide or war crimes, in which CEOs of companies could be held accountable for destruction of the environment.
“When change happens, it can happen very, very quickly,” he said.
He wants Americans to look at his documentary and consider the morality and ethics of tar sands oil.
“Would we buy blood diamonds from conflict zones?” he asks, referring to diamonds mined in a war zone and sold to finance war. “No, it would be wrong.
“This is the cost of your oil. Do you want this kind of oil?”