Friday, November 21, 2014

1652. A Forest Threatened by Keystone XL

By Andrew Nikiforuk, The New York Times, November 17, 2014
Canada's boreal forest (please note: those trees are actual living beings)

CALGARY, Alberta—Environmentalists typically fret about the prospect of adding monstrous new amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere if the Keystone XL pipeline is approved, and for good reason.

Bitumen, the low-grade petroleum in Canada’s tar sands that would be carried by the pipeline to the United States, emits an estimated 17 percent more greenhouse gases overall than an average barrel of crude refined in America, according to a report earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service.

But for a vast stretch of western Canada’s boreal forest, the fight over extracting bitumen has already been lost. The question is, how much more will we lose?

Since the mining frenzy for this garbage crude took off in 2000, nearly two million acres of this ancient forest have been cleared or degraded, according to Global Forest Watch — a swath more than six times the size of New York City. If Keystone XL and other proposed pipelines are approved and bitumen production grows, much more forest will be lost.

The Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on the long-delayed pipeline. The House approved it last Friday. President Obama has signaled that he would probably veto it. But even if he does, with Republicans set to take control of Congress in January and only two years left in the president’s term, no one thinks that would mean the end of Keystone XL.

Ground zero in this fight is in western Canada, where the forest hugs the northern flowing Athabasca River. The Athabasca deposit is the largest of three bitumen formations in Canada. This tarry mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen, which the Cree used to heat up to repair leaky canoes, lies under a northern forest of spruce and aspens roughly the size of Florida.

The shallow deposits are scooped up by huge electric shovels and then hauled away in 400-ton-capacity trucks to mills that separate the bitumen from the sand. The waste is then dumped into lakes of polluted sludge. But most of the bitumen lies so deep in the frozen ground that it must be melted with steam and then pumped to the surface for processing. This requires steam injection plants that blast scalding steam into the ground through wells.

Basic mathematics underscores the absurdity of this brute-force enterprise. A study last year found that one unit of energy was required to produce the equivalent of five units of energy from the open-pit mines. For steam-extracted deposits, the ratio was roughly 1 to 3. As the Canadian economist Jeff Rubin put it several years ago, “when you’re schlepping oil from sand, you’re probably in the bottom of the ninth inning in the hydrocarbon economy.”

Where bitumen is near the surface, the landscape is reduced to a treeless wasteland. For the harder-to-extract bitumen, the steam plants require a supporting network of roads, pipelines, power lines, seismic lines and well pads that do their own damage. The natural gas that powers these plants is generated by the hydraulic fracturing of shale-gas formations in British Columbia. One battlefield leads to another.

Woodland caribou, shy, lichen-eating animals, are a notable casualty. They avoid cut lines like the plague and won’t cross a logged forest. In recent years their population has declined significantly. They are listed as threatened by the Canadian government.
Bitumen mining requires about three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. Surface mines take their water from the Athabasca River while the steam plants drain aquifers. All the water comes from the Mackenzie River Basin, which covers one-fifth of Canada. The basin’s freshwater energizes the Beaufort Sea.

During bitumen processing the water collects a variety of pollutants and is stored in tailing ponds. Along the Athabasca River, more than a dozen of these enormous waste ponds hold back this industrial excrement. Pollutants in these lakes are leaking into groundwater and the Athabasca River.

Last year, the journal Geoscience Canada described the dams as “some of the largest man-made disruptions of the Earth’s surface, easily seen from space (visible using Google Earth), a major hazard for birds, and a continuing concern regarding the potential for leakage into the surface water system.”

Air pollution from bitumen mining has blackened winter snows with particulates dozens of miles from the Athabasca mines. Come the spring melt, these pollutants rush into the Athabasca River. A growing ring of mercury contamination surrounds the project.
The reclamation of these blown-up forests remains a nightmarish challenge. Nobody really knows how to put a boreal forest back together once it has been stripped of its trees, soil, wetlands and fish-bearing rivers. More than half of these devastated forests contained peat lands. Those landscapes took thousands of years to form. They also fed caribou, stored carbon, recharged groundwater, protected biological diversity and acted as protection against floods.

The miners plan to substitute forest lowlands with artificial hills constructed of sand and petroleum coke. The hills will be topped with a salt-tolerant plantation forest. Mining pits filled with toxic waste and topped with freshwater will pass as wetlands. The industry has called this crude terraforming a “sustainable landscape that is equal to or better than how we found it.”

The American social critic Lewis Mumford described mining as barbaric to land and soul. By any definition, Keystone XL grants license to an earth-destroying economy.

No comments: