Climate Corner: Tar Sands oil extraction continues to threaten climate

Jan 8, 2022

Randi Pokladnik

When President Biden revoked the permit of the Keystone XL Pipeline in January 2021, he stated, “permitting the pipeline would undermine U.S. climate leadership by undercutting the credibility and influence of the United States in urging other countries to take ambitious climate action.” The 1,700-mile pipeline would have carried roughly 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, with the potential to pollute ecosystems, negatively impact health, and become a major contributor to climate change. It would also pose a major threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers.

However, in October 2021, the Biden administration shocked the environmental community by giving a green light to the Enbridge 3 pipeline. This pipeline, like the Keystone KL pipeline, will carry about a million barrels a day of the dirty fuel. As it travels from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisc., it will cross 227 lakes, rivers and streams, including the Mississippi River. It bisects the state of Minnesota and cuts across treaty land.

I have many fond memories of times spent in Minnesota with my husband’s family. Both his mother and father were born in the state and we frequently visited the small towns of Brainard, Little Falls, and Foley, all located just south of the Enbridge 3 pipeline. Now the region has become a hotbed of controversy as indigenous people clash with a Canadian company determined to transport tar sands oil across the state.

The pipeline violates the land treaty rights of the Anishinaabe peoples, threatens the culturally significant wild rice, and contributes more to climate change than the entire economy of Minnesota. It is expected to add 50 coal power plants’ worth of carbon to the atmosphere each year.

Among the nearly 1,000 water protectors arrested in the past year are three grandmothers from the Athens, Ohio, area. Peaceful indigenous protestors were blasted with sand, harassed by pipeline workers, and confronted by police outfitted in riot gear; $2 million worth purchased by the Enbridge company.

What exactly are “tar sands oils?” They are a mixture of sand, clay, water and a thick tar-like substance called bitumen. The bitumen is made up of hydrocarbon molecules, which can be used to make fuels and other petroleum-based products. The world’s largest deposits of tar sands are found in Alberta, Canada, near Athabasca, Cold Lake, and Peace River. There are two ways in which the tar-like bitumen can be extracted from the mixture; open-pit mining and in-situ drilling.

In order to open-pit mine, the forested land must be cleared. Top soil and shale strata are then removed (to depths of up to 300 feet) to reach the tar sand. The tar sand mixture is then removed and hauled to facilities where it is thinned out by combining it with large amounts of water. This slurry is then taken to facilities to extract the bitumen. Less than 20% of the tar sands reserves can be open-pit mined, which employs massive machines to dig up soil and load it into dump trucks the size of houses. For every barrel of oil produced, four tons of earth are excavated.

In an in-situ drilling operation, multiple wells are drilled and steam is pumped underground to liquify the bitumen for pumping and transport. In-situ mining is less damaging to the environment according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum and 80% of the tar sands can be accessed in this manner. But in 2011, in-situ tar sand companies used 370 million cubic meters of fresh water from the Athabasca River alone, more water than the city of Toronto, Canada, used that year.

Regardless of the technique used, it takes large quantities of energy to access tar sands oil. Approximately 14-25% of the energy obtained from tar sands is lost through processing compared to 4% for conventional oil drilling processes.

Like any fossil fuel, tar sands oil destroys air, water, and land, as it is extracted and refined for use. Tar sands oil is thicker, more acidic, and more corrosive than conventional oil. This means that pipelines carrying it are more likely to corrode and leak oil. Since 2010, the original TransCanada Keystone pipeline has leaked over a dozen times and in 2019, spilled 378,000 gallons of tar sands oil in North Dakota. An internal study by TC Energy revealed that pipe stored outside for long periods of time causes anti-corrosion coatings to fail.

Other problems occur when tar sands oil spills out of pipelines as it did in July 2010, when the Enbridge-owned pipeline leaked bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Because the oil contains heavier elements, it sinks to the bottom of water, which makes it more difficult to recover it from the environment.

Tar sands oil is extremely capital intensive and today, many investors are questioning dumping billions into tar sands development when much of the world is turning away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable, less carbon-intensive fuel sources as a way to address the climate crisis. If we continue to expand this dirty fuel source in Canada and other areas of the world, it is highly likely that the earth will see a 6C rise in average global temperatures rather than the 1.5C suggested by the Paris Climate Accord. The economic and social impacts of 6C will be catastrophic.

Additionally, the removal of millions of acres of boreal forests in Canada will only exacerbate the climate crisis. Indigenous people in the region liken the removal of these forests to “skinning the earth alive.” Photographs of the region testify to the moonscapes left behind after valuable, diverse forests are stripped away.

Some of the pollutants that are released as a result of tar sands mining are naphthalene acids, mercury, arsenic salts, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. These are found in sediments of watersheds around tar sands and are toxic to invertebrate species. According to a report by Environmental Defense, “The Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Canada is experiencing disturbing impacts from the pollution as twice as many girls are being born as boys. Moore Township next to the reserve is also experiencing a lower male birth rate, and scientists have found evidence of “feminized” turtles in the St. Clair River that runs through the area.”

The U.S. is planning to invest an estimated $379 billion in Canadian tar sands through the year 2025. We will be fueling the climate crisis with this carbon intensive fuel that generates 3-5 times more emissions than conventional oil. Some refineries of tar sands oil in the Midwestern USA include PBF in Toledo, Ohio and Husky Energy in Lima, Ohio. Husky Energy is owned by the Chinese billionaire Li Ka-Shing. In 2019, the plant increased its capacity to refine tar sands oil to 40,000 barrels a day. PBF refinery in Toledo refines 170,000 barrels of oil a day.

When it comes to tar sands oil, the best stance to take is “keep it in the ground.”


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in Environmental Studies and is certified in Hazardous Materials Regulations.