Tar Sands Oil Extraction and Its Devastating Impacts (Video)

Watch our video to find out what tar sands oil extraction is and its devastating impacts

On 20th January 2021, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office cancelling the Canadian Keystone pipeline.1 Now, another pipeline from Canada into the US is causing controversy. At the heart of the dispute is the destructive impact of Canada’s tar sands industry – locally known as oil sands – and the impact that it has on communities across North America.2

National Geographic calls Canada’s tar sands “the world’s most destructive oil operation” – and with good reason.3 Canada has the world’s third-largest oil reserves. Its oil not only needs a lot of freshwater to extract, but it also produces a thick sludge waste that has accumulated to over a trillion litres.4 Pipelines or railways take the vast majority of the oil into the United States.5 This is where the problem arises.

Why tar sands oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac are a ticking time bomb

In May 2021, Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, ordered Canada’s Enbridge Line 5 pipeline – which goes through Michigan – to be shut down. The pipeline carries up to 540,000 barrels of crude oil and natural gas liquids every day from Canada’s tar sands operations.

Whitmer’s office said that the pipeline posed a risk to Michigan’s Great Lakes, calling it “a ticking time bomb”. Native American tribes living in the region agreed with her. “The Straits of Mackinac are a sacred wellspring of life and culture for Tribal Amici and other Indian Tribes in Michigan. An oil spill into those waters would be culturally, economically, spiritually and historically devastating”. The governor listed several reasons for her decision, including a lack of support and adequate pipeline protection from Enbridge. Whitmer also noted two earlier incidents in which the pipelines were damaged. However, Enbridge maintains that the pipeline is safe.6

The state of Michigan has good reason to worry. In 2010, another pipeline by Enbridge ruptured and leaked over 20,000 barrels of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It was one of the largest inland oil spills in US history.7 The US National Transportation Safety Board had warned Enbridge about cracks in the pipeline, but it did not fix them.8

image of tar sands and oil
Photo by ruedi häberli on Unsplash

Do tar sands pipelines pose a health risk?

Pipelines carrying Canada’s tar sands oil into the US are frequently accused of posing a health risk to local communities due to their safety record. The US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that pipelines moving tar sands are more likely to leak. Also, leak detection systems are unlikely to detect tar sands spills when they happen. Furthermore, tar sands spills are significantly more damaging than conventional spills.9 

The Keystone XL pipeline encountered 12 spills in one year, despite assurances that they would only occur once every seven years.10 The poor safety record of tar sands pipelines is one of the key reasons that President Obama and President Joe Biden chose to halt and eventually cancel the Keystone XL pipeline.11

Sources

  1. Pladson, K. (2021). With a pen stroke, President Joe Biden cancels Keystone XL pipeline project | DW | 21.01.2021. [online] DW.COM. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/with-a-pen-stroke-president-joe-biden-cancels-keystone-xl-pipeline-project/a-56285371.
  2. Coletta, A. (2021). Looming showdown as Michigan governor orders Canadian pipeline shut down. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/02/canada-enbridge-line-5-whitmer-michigan/.
  3. Leahy, S. (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment/2019/04/worlds-most-destructive-oil-operation-and-its-growing.
  4. McNeill, J. (2017). Tailings ponds: The worst is yet to come. [online] Pembina Institute. Available at: https://www.pembina.org/blog/tailings-ponds-worst-yet-come.
  5. www.worldoil.com. (n.d.). Canada’s oil transport shortage solved by new pipelines, reduced demand. [online] Available at: https://www.worldoil.com/news/2020/6/23/canada-s-oil-transport-shortage-solved-by-new-pipelines-reduced-demand [Accessed 7 Jun. 2021].
  6. Coletta, A. (2021). Looming showdown as Michigan governor orders Canadian pipeline shut down. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/02/canada-enbridge-line-5-whitmer-michigan/.
  7. Coletta, A. (2021). Looming showdown as Michigan governor orders Canadian pipeline shut down. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/02/canada-enbridge-line-5-whitmer-michigan/.
  8. Mufson, S. (2012). NTSB blames Enbridge, “weak” regulations in Kalamazoo oil spill. Washington Post. [online] 10 Jul. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/ntsb-blames-enbridge-weak-regulations-in-kalamazoo-oil-spill/2012/07/10/gJQAWzqgbW_story.html [Accessed 2 Jun. 2021].
  9. Swift, A. (2013). Tar sands pipeline risks – examining the facts. [online] NRDC. Available at: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/anthony-swift/tar-sands-pipeline-risks-examining-facts [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  10. Jervey, B. (2011). The Many Problems With Tar Sands Pipelines. [online] DeSmog. Available at: https://www.desmog.com/2011/07/29/many-problems-tar-sands-pipelines/ [Accessed 28 May 2021].
  11. Keystone XL pipeline: Why is it so disputed? (2021). BBC News. [online] 21 Jan. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-30103078.