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Tar sand oil…Lake Michigan refinery…Illinois pipeline…

As the Tribune reports, President Obama seems to suggest there’s a way to use oil out of northern Alberta’s tar sands while also reducing global warming emissions. 

“I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean-energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands but also coal,” Obama said, advocating the development of technologies that “contain the environmental damage of fossil fuels.”

Natural Resources Defense Council says tar sands development has been called “the most destructive project on Earth.” In fact, its problems stretch from northern Alberta to southern Illinois, from Lake Michigan to the sky.

Writes the Trib’s Michael Hawthorne: “Extracting and processing the oil sands requires significantly more energy than does regular crude oil” and produces significantly more greenhouse gas. Environment Illinois cites estimates that it takes 1500 cubic feet of natural gas to get one barrel of tar sand crude.

Then there’s refining.  Hawthorne reported last February that that global-warming pollution from U.S. refineries alone could jump as much as 40 percent with the processing of tar sands oil.  He writes: “Plans to overhaul and expand the Midwest’s largest refinery, the sprawling BP complex in Whiting, Ind., [to handle tar sand oil] will boost the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions to 5.8 million tons a year.” 

And it was Hawthorne in July 2007 who revealed that environmental regulators in Indiana had exempted the BP expansion from water quality standards, allowing big increases in releases into Lake Michigan.  Under the permit, BP can dump 1,500 lbs. of ammonia a day and 5,000 lbs. of sludge containing mercury and other heavy metals.

Indiana and BP agreed to review the permit after Mayor Daley and local environmentalists raised a stink.  But work on the refinery expansion continues, and the water permit is still in place, according to Josh Mogerman of the Chicago office of the National Resources Defense Council.  NRDC filed a federal court challenge to new air quality permits issued by Indiana, which would allow significant increases in emissions of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide once the refinery expansion is complete in 2011.

In Indiana, the Save the Dunes Coalition is monitoring the refinery expansion.

Meanwhile, in southern Illinois, farmers are fighting an effort by Enbridge Energy to get eminent domain for 120-foot easements through farmlands and woodlands on 500 properties.  Enbridge wants to build a 175-mile pipeline to ship tar sand oil to Texas refineries, Kari Lydersen reported for the Progressive last year (reposted at Tar Sands Watch).

Last week the staff of the Illinois Commerce Commission gave its approval to the grant of eminent domain; the ICC itself now has to rule on the matter.  ICC staff  “found Enbridge negotiators to have made reasonable attempts to reach easement agreements with landowners,” the Pantagraph reports.  An attorney for 200 landowners opposing the land grab says ICC staff never spoke to the owners themselves.

And, of course, it’s pretty rough on the ancient forests of northern Alberta.  Canadian journalist Naomi Klein describes the process:

“One method is to mine it in vast open pits: First forests are clear-cut, then topsoil scraped away. Next, huge machines dig out the black goop and load it into the largest dump trucks in the world (two stories high, a single wheel costs $100,000). The tar is diluted with water and solvents in giant vats, which spin it around until the oil rises to the top, while the massive tailings are dumped in ponds larger than the region’s natural lakes. Another method is to separate the oil where it is: Large drill-pipes push steam deep underground, which melts the tar, while another pipe sucks it out and transports it through several more stages of refining, much of it powered by natural gas.”

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper (who is having trouble holding on to a parliamentary majority) is pushing exploitation of the tar sands, many Canadians are opposing it. 

In a full-page ad in USA Today on Tuesday (pdf), the environmental group Forest Ethics and the Mikisee Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations call on Obama to press a clean energy agenda when he meets with Harper.

“Producing oil from Canada’s tar sands releases massive greenhouse gas emissions, consumes huge amounts of energy, contaminates fresh water and fish, produces toxic waste and destroys vast forests along with their birds and wildlife.”

And 50 prominent Canadians recently wrote Obama (posted as a pdf by Tar Sands Watch) urging him to allow no exemptions for tar sand production in any binational climate change agreement.  It’s signed by actresses Ann-Marie MacDonald and Neve Campbell; athletes including Andrew Ference of the Boston Bruins, Olympic gold medal rower Adam Kreek, and members of the national ski and skating teams; Jim Creggan of Barenaked Ladies; a slew of environmental groups and 22 members of Parliament.

Klein points out that tar sand oil was too expensive to extract ten years ago, when oil was $12 a barrel.  But rising oil prices were supposed to spur the market into seeking alternative energy sources.  “Alberta puts the lie to that claim. High prices have indeed led to an R&D extravaganza, but it is squarely focused on figuring out how to get the dirtiest possible oil out of the hardest-to-reach places.”

Change is going to take leadership. 

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Category: energy, environment

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