The Pipeline Dream Lurking in Canada's Wild

One of many ways to combat global warming is to replace our dirtiest, carbon-polluting fuels, especially coal and oil, with cleaner fuels like natural gas. So proponents of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline, an 800-mile megaproject to tap into Canada's natural gas reserves, now say that's their plan. They want us to believe, somehow, that building this massive project through Canada's Boreal Forest wilderness will be good for the environment. Not surprisingly, a closer look at the facts suggests otherwise.

As large and as ecologically important as the Amazon rainforest, though less well known, Canada's Boreal Forest teems with wildlife: caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and lynx. It provides summer breeding grounds for almost half of North America's migratory songbirds and waterfowl. And by sequestering twice as much carbon per acre as tropical forests, it helps keep the global warming threat from worsening.Not only would the Mackenzie pipeline bulldoze right through the heart of this ecological treasure, it would also open up the most remote and unspoiled regions of Canada's Boreal, paving the way for mining, logging, oil drilling, and other development to spread out across the wilderness. Hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness could eventually be lost. It's hard to see the environmental benefits of that.

What's even worse, it's very doubtful that the natural gas extracted through the pipeline would be used to replace coal or oil. It's far more likely the gas would be used to make oil - synthetic oil.

At the south end of the proposed Mackenzie pipeline, under the Boreal Forest, lies a giant deposit of tar mixed with dirt, sand, and rock - the remains of an oil field that dried up eons ago. It took almost a half-century to figure out how to turn this tar back into oil without spending more than you can sell it for. First, you cut down the forest and strip mine the tar sand from open pits. Massive amounts of natural gas are used to boil massive amounts of water to steam the tar out of the dirt. More natural gas "upgrades" the melted tar into synthetic oil.

Finally, the residual toxic slurry of oily water, sand, and mud is pumped back into the mine pits. They're still working on what to do with the waste, which keeps piling up. Altogether, it takes almost as much natural gas energy to make the oil as you get from the final product. And it makes an unholy mess of the environment to boot.

But with the price of oil hovering around $100 per barrel, this expensive, complex, and destructive process now pays huge profits. Tar sands extraction is booming and oil companies need more and more gas. Last month, the press reported on a proposed $983 million gas pipeline to feed the tar sands.

The $16 billion Mackenzie pipeline dwarfs this project. The three oil companies behind it already own the gas fields it would tap. They are big tar sands operators, with even bigger ambitions, with plans for a $25 billion tar sands plant in the works.

From a global warming perspective, turning low-carbon natural gas into high-carbon synthetic oil is like turning gold into lead. It only makes our challenge harder and wastes the precious time we need to transform our energy system. A better plan would be to prohibit the use of Mackenzie pipeline gas in the tar sands, halt tar sands expansion, and clean up the mess that's already been made.

The Canadian government should continue to protect Boreal Forest wilderness areas alongside the proposed pipeline route, which it started to do Nov. 21 when it created a 3.7 million acre wildlife refuge in the Mackenzie River Valley. That was a wonderful step in the right direction.

The tar sands pioneers spent untold fortunes and many decades of labor figuring out how to get oil from tar sand as economically as possible. Now they have to figure out how to do it in an environmentally responsible manner. Making synthetic oil out of natural gas from the Mackenzie pipeline will not help.

Steve Kallick directs the International Boreal Conservation Campaign for The Pew Charitable Trusts' Environment Group.

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