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September 08, 2014

The World's Most Ambitious Disaster

I've long known how wasteful, destructive, and dangerous the process of extracting oil from tar sands is. To get one barrel of oil, you have to dig up four tons of dirt and rock. Beautiful old-growth boreal forest becomes a wasteland. And that single barrel of oil? It creates three times as much climate pollution simply to produce it as a barrel of conventional crude.

So, yes, I knew that tar sands were bad news. That's why I was willing to go to jail for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. But it's impossible to really comprehend the brutal reality of tar sands mining without seeing it firsthand.

I spent four days in Alberta with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and First Nations leaders. We met with officials from Suncor Energy, one of the companies most involved in extracting tar sands, and walked through the dismal wreckage of what the company calls a "reclaimed" area. We took a tour of the massive open-pit mines that spread across the landscape, and received a sobering briefing from Erin Flanagan at the Pembina Institute. We also visited with leaders from the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, whose communities have been devastated by the immediate environmental consequences of tar sands extraction.

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First Nations communities downstream of tar sands operations have suffered a higher than normal incidence of rare and deadly cancers. Photo: Niko Tavernise

The tar sands are the most outsized example I can imagine of misspent energy and ingenuity. About a fifth of tar sands oil is extracted using open-pit mines -- some of the largest strip mines on Earth. But the other four-fifths of the oil is extracted with an even more dangerous process. Basically, they pipe in natural gas, which you can think of as clean energy's antithesis. They then burn that fuel to generate steam to liquefy and extract the bitumen. The bitumen then gets separated and "upgraded" using massive amounts of water and, frequently, toxic chemicals.

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There is no dirtier, more inefficient way to get oil than by tar sands mining. Photo: Niko Tavernise

As part of this process, the boreal forest is fragmented, cut down, or completely obliterated. And all of this happens before the bitumen is diluted (more toxic chemicals) and then piped under high heat and intense pressure up to a thousand miles or more to where it's refined and stuffed into our cars and trucks. It is immense, complex, and at a scale that arguably dwarfs any other industrial activity on the planet. When you see it happening, you can't help but be impressed by the scale and audacity of the whole crazy process.

What a waste -- not just of forests, habitat, energy, air, water, health, and our climate. What a waste of human talent. Watching all this, I found myself contemplating how much could be achieved if all of this effort, ingenuity, and engineering prowess were instead directed toward developing clean power? What if, instead of extracting oil by brute force using mining trucks and shovels the size of apartment buildings, these engineers and technicians were designing better wind turbines or perfecting advanced battery storage? Why go to so much trouble to do something so difficult and so destructive when you could invest the same effort into something positive that can literally save the world and power it to boot?

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Tar sands mining destroys entire landscapes. Photo: Niko Tavernise

Maybe it's just a question of human nature. History is filled with examples of those who stubbornly clung to old paradigms even when it was against their own best interest. Of course, the better way of doing things eventually wins out. But in the case of tar sands and other carbon-intensive, extreme energy-extraction methods, we simply can't afford to wait any longer for common sense to prevail. Not if we want to stop climate disruption.

That's why it is so important that, as a society, we increase the pressure on our leaders to take action right now to advance clean energy solutions and to resist the temptation to drill, mine, and frack as if there were no consequences and no tomorrow.

In a couple of weeks, on September 21, I will be marching along with thousands of Sierra Club members and so many others in New York City. The People's Climate March will be the biggest climate demonstration in U.S. history. The march will include a "Tar Sands Bloc" of people affected by tar sands at every stage -- from First Nations communities in the north to refineries in the south and along the pipelines and train routes in-between. There'll be blocs of families with young children, gatherings of clean energy advocates, and much more. We'll be calling on President Obama other world leaders to take more-significant action to curb carbon pollution. Join us, and take a stand where you stand.

Because we're starting to move in the right direction toward clean energy. We are already building an economy based on clean energy that is creating more jobs than building pipelines or stripmining forests for oil. We're replacing power plants, switching to wind and solar, and improving fuel efficiency. It's not fast enough, nor at the scale that we need -- yet -- but momentum is building. Every day, smart people are coming up with new ideas and innovations. But just think what we will accomplish once our civilization commits all of its genius to making this transformation happen and stops working overtime to prolong the use of fossil fuels.

Forget about "if we can put a man on the moon" analogies. Any society that can conceive of and execute something as recklessly ambitious as tar-sands mining should find the transformation to a clean-energy economy to be a walk in the park.

See you in NY. Please RSVP and find out more about the People's Climate March here.


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Michael Brune

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