Friday, January 15, 2010

Why scream about destruction of Appalachia ("mountain top removal") and not destruction of the Alberta tar sands region

Last week a hue and cry was raised over mountain top removal coal mining in Appalachia. This is such an egregiously bad mining practice that a panel of scientists called for its immediate halt. I mean, what part of "mountain top removal" does not scream in huge bloody letters "DESTRUCTION"??? The goal is to "remove" mountains to get at the coal underneath. Anybody with a half an ounce of awareness would see this.
In Alberta there is a huge deposit of "tar sands" which are being mined and processed to produce liquid oil. The mining process involves destroying whole forests, scraping up the ground, pouring the sands into machines, extracting the oil, and dumping the remaining stuff somewhere.
"Tar sands look like dirt and smell like diesel fuel." This makes them attractive to the oil industry. As I noted in "TechnoSanity #32: Fudged numbers in the IEA's World Energy Outlook, 2009??" it is well understood that oil supplies are running low, and that the world is looking to Canada to fill in the coming gap in production. The 2009 World Energy Outlook made it clear that oil supplies will not keep up with demand, if (when) the economy recovers to produce increased demand, and that the IAEA projects are that to keep up with oil demand in the future will require oil production from places like the Alberta tar sands.
A paper has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the egregiously bad mining practices in the Alberta tar sands region. The report covers the high concentrations of various toxic chemical compounds found in the Athabasca River in Alberta as a result of enormous tar sands mining operations.
Currently, the majority of bitumen is recovered by surface-mining practices that require the clearing of large areas of land, resulting in loss of habitat, including migration corridors and breeding grounds for terrestrial and aquatic species. Methods for mitigating and remediating these effects are under development, but even when remediated the habitat will be considerably different from its previous state. These externalities are costs that should be considered when developing this resource....
Global demand for oil and the resulting economic potential mean that development of oil sands will continue. This development has the potential to impact society and the environment significantly. It is essential that any detrimental effects be mitigated as much as possible and that development proceed in a manner that minimizes effects on the health and welfare of the environment, wildlife, and humans like.
The question is why in the one case (Appalachia) it warrants calls for immediate cessation and in the other case (Alberta) it doesn't.
The key is "global demand .. will continue" meaning that "development of oil sands will continue". Canada could turn around and say it's not worth the horrid environmental harm to mine these tar sands, and refuse to allow it to happen. But they aren't doing so. The people of the world could realize that use of oil is a very bad thing, and that we should all stop the practice of using machines which require oil. Doing so would halt the demand for oil. But we aren't doing so in any significant numbers.
Dave Levitan writing on the ecopolitology goes a bit further. He took a look at the authors and found that some of them work for the Alberta Water Research Institute. This institute does research activities into, um, water. "But their Management Advisory Board is peppered with a few people who work for giant oil companies like Statoil Hydro and EPCOR. Like pretty much every large oil company in the world, those two have oil sands projects in Alberta."
Um, this is starting to stink of oil companies influencing researchers ... The line of connection is a bit weak. Just because oil companies are funding the institute employing the researchers doesn't mean oil companies are influencing the researchers. Does it?
Whatever the influence on these researchers one thing is clear from what they wrote in their paper. They are allowing the corporate activity of selling oil to meet the continued demand for oil to stop them from calling for a halt to tar sands oil mining. Even if the oil companies didn't influence them to say this, their actions are benefiting the oil companies and thereby allowing the oil companies to continue destroying and polluting the planet.