Published on
The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Don’t Switch to Tar Sands and Other Dirty Fuels

As we’ve watched the Gulf Coast clean up from the massive BP oil disaster, besides BP picking up its own PR mission to improve its image, we’ve also noticed another disturbing PR campaign: The coal industry and the tar sands industry are both starting to use this disaster to tout the supposed “cleanliness” of their respective energy sources.

There are more and more “clean” coal ads appearing alongside oil cleanup articles, and the tar sands (also known as oil sands) industry has already made the outrageous claim that it is “safer” than offshore drilling. One executive said “that while there can be failures with conventional oil and oil sands projects, the damage would be much smaller and more modest than with offshore spills.”

This could not be farther from the truth, of course. One could compare the tar sands industry in Canada to a massive and permanent oil spill on land. When the tar sands industry destroys the environment from the get-go, who needs a spill?

Here’s a fact for you: The Canadian tar sands operations are intending to expand to the size of Florida (and have already destroyed 200 square miles).

The mining and production of oil from tar sands creates three times the carbon emissions as that of conventional oil. As if its global warming pollution were not bad enough, tar sands mining also results in the destruction of the Canadian boreal forest, a vital carbon reservoir for 11 percent of the world’s carbon and a global nesting ground for 166 million birds. In other words, not only does tar sands development create vast quantities of new carbon emissions, it destroys the Earth’s natural ability to capture carbon through the forest.

Think BP’s bad behavior only crops up in oil? Think again -- BP is actively involved in the tar sands industry and has recently been cited for cutting corners on a tar sands project that would have impacted the drinking water for the 8 million people residing in the Chicago area.


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In October, BP was caught trying to undercount the pollution that would result from a proposed expansion of its Whiting refinery in order to process tar sands. The tar sands expansion would increase the refinery’s discharges of ammonia into Lake Michigan by 54 percent and its discharges of suspended solids -- the byproducts of making gasoline -- by 35 percent. Surely the people of Chicago would thank BP for adding byproducts of making gasoline to their drinking water.

If that incident doesn’t scare you, one of BP’s tar sands operations, ironically named Sunrise, is situated above Canada’s biggest freshwater aquifer. Rick Boucher, vice president of the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region One, fears that “it’s just a matter of time before an accident causes injury or death, and pollution of this massive underground freshwater system.”

Instead of taking every precaution to protect this water resource, last month BP’s management successfully beat down “a resolution that would have required the company to report on the environmental, financial and reputational risks of developing Canadian tar sands projects.” The tar sands have been called “the greatest environmental crime in history,” yet BP is steadily increasing its involvement.

This BP oil disaster should be a turning point in our energy policy here in the U.S. We should not keep relying on dirty energy sources like coal, oil and tar sands. We have available technologies such as electric vehicles, solar and wind power that would allow us to get off oil. It’s time to make the switch.

There is no room in America’s future for coal, oil and tar sands -- don’t let the BP oil disaster help chain our country to more dirty energy.

Bruce Nilles

Bruce Nilles is the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. Nilles earned his bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Wisconsin.

Kate Colarulli

Kate Colarulli is the associate campaign director for Sierra Club's Beyond Oil Campaign.

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