Most Americans probably don't know that Canada has replaced Saudi Arabia as our primary source of imported oil. And fewer still have any idea that much of the Canadian oil, refined into gasoline at places like Suncor Energy's plant in Commerce City, is some of the nastiest stuff on earth, obtained at a hellacious environmental cost.
Meet Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, who's currently on a speaking tour trying to give the oil-addicted Yanks a clue. Nikiforuk hits Denver this afternoon, hoping to get some local conversation started about where the gas that fuels our lives is coming from these days,
"Right now, Canada is quite happy to be your next crack dealer," NIkiforuk says. "But a crack dealer isn't going to be honest about the quality of his product."
Forget swine flu. A greater economic threat is being piped across the border from the north. Canada has vast reserves of heavy oil, or bitumen, trapped in tar sands. Twenty percent of the United States oil supply now comes from Canada, and half of that is bitumen, which Nikiforuk describes as "the world's most capital-intensive hydrocarbon."
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The process of mining bitumen makes an old-fashioned oil drilling rig look positively green. Oil companies have to chomp through two tons of dirt to get one barrel of the stuff; each barrel also consumes three barrels of water. The result has been a massive hit to the forests of Alberta and eighty square miles of toxic water trapped in tailing ponds. The product that hits the pipeline is rich in acids, heavy metals, sulfur -- and, oh yeah, it generates up to five times the amount of CO² emissions produced by conventional oil.
Increasing reliance on bitumen for fuel "raises a number of security and environmental issues," Nikiforuk says. "This really, truly is the bottom of the barrel."
As he sees it, the increasing development of Canada's bitumen fields is an end-time sign that the oil supply is running out. As crude oil prices rise again, so will the push to ravage Alberta and foist bitumen on an unsuspecting public. But Nikiforuk doesn't think the choice has to be between the "bloody oil" of the Mideast and Canada's dirty oil. The real issue is how to get past the oil addiction while there's still time.
To find out more, join Nikiforuk for discussion and a PowerPoint presentation at the Wynkoop Brewing Company's Mercantile Room, 1634 18th Street, 5:00 to 7:30 pm, Thursday, April 30. Call the Wynkoop at 303-297-2700 for more details.