Shell Scales Back in Tar Sands, but Not Enough

The United States gets more oil from Canada than from any other country, and an increasing amount of that oil is coming from the so-called tar sands. Oil extraction from the tar sands comprises the largest industrial project on Earth – as well as the most supremely dirty source of energy imaginable.

Shell has been a major player in oil production from Canada’s tar sands, but the company has just announced it is scaling back the pace of its expansion to concentrate on other oil reserves. But that by no means portends the end of this disastrously destructive fossil fuel source.

Spread out over an area the size of Florida, the tar sands lie deep below the Boreal Forest of northern Alberta. Until fairly recently, it was considered too expensive to extract the tar sands to produce oil. Over the past few years, however, as it has become apparent that we’ve reached the age of peak oil and we’ve experienced more and more increases in oil prices, the tar sands have come to be seen as a valuable oil reserve worth exploiting. (The tar sands are the largest known reserve outside of Saudi Arabia, so exploration there was just a matter of time.)

Oil companies, including the U.K.’s Royal Dutch Shell, the U.S.’s ConocoPhillips, and France’s Total, are now producing over a million barrels of oil per day from the tar sands, and this number is constantly increasing. But the explosive growth of tar sands projects has had a huge impact on the environment, damaging not just the land but also the air, water, and forests. And of course the tar sands projects are responsible for dumping incredible amounts of carbon into the atmosphere to contribute to climate change: Every barrel of synthetic crude produced from the tar sands causes three to five times more global warming pollution than a barrel of conventional crude.

I’ve heard the tar sands described by a colleague of mine as “environmental genocide.” When you see pictures of the alien-looking wastelands that the landscape is converted to by oil extraction from tar sands, you can’t help but agree with that assessment.

While it’s good news to hear that Shell’s expansion in Canada’s tar sands will be slowed down, the company will still be expanding there, just more slowly. Rather than producing 700,000 barrels of oil from the tar sands every day, as the company had previously planned, Shell will instead be raising its capacity to 255,000 barrels per day by the end of next year.

This was purely a business decision made by Shell’s new CEO, and not, sadly, an indication that the Canadian government has thought twice about completely devastating the environment, and razing ancient forests, for a little bit of short-term gain. (Okay, probably a lot of short-term gain. Shell alone is planning on spending $14 billion on its tar sands expansion.)

There are some signs that the insanity may be stopped, however. Congress has passed a law prohibiting the federal government from using fuels with a higher greenhouse gas content than conventional fuels, which oil produced from Canada’s tar sands most certainly do. Congress hasn’t enforced that law yet, but should it choose to, it would have a surprisingly significant: The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest purchaser of the light refined petroleum the tar sands generate.

You can take action right now to help push Congress to enforce that law by telling President Obama not to support Canada’s tar sands.

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