Remember Deepwater Horizon? The world looked on in horror as millions of barrels worth of oil gushed out into the Gulf, and we seemed powerless to stop it, even as we were riveted to our screens watching live feeds of attempts to fix the wellhead. Eventually the well was capped, but the environmental cost was almost unfathomable; a slick so huge it could be seen from space drifted through the water, ensnaring plants and animals alike and casting huge tarballs up on the shoreline. It was a costly, ugly cleanup and it’s far from over.
“Never again,” was the response from many quarters, but the world is still desperately hungry for oil, and as we search for new reserves, we’re willing to go to greater lengths to get at the Earth’s precious supplies. Case in point, of course, is the notorious tar sands, which require a costly and lengthy extraction process that’s worth it to oil companies, given the high value of oil. Though tar sands oil needs extensive processing to be usable, it’s still salable, especially in nations like the United States that have a high demand for all the oil they can get.
But what happens when you have a tar sands spill? Not a spill from a pipeline or the recent horrific Quebec train disaster, but an underground blowout at a site where tar sands are being extracted? We appear to be finding out at Cold Lake, Alberta, and it’s not a very pretty picture. As oil seeps to the surface from underground sites in a locale restricted to the public and members of the press, scientists are scrambling to determine how to clean the site up, but they aren’t feeling very optimistic.
Oiled animals and vegetation are being steadily cleared from the site, but the real problem is how to stop the flow of oil. Only that might not be so simple, because of the extraction system used. In this type of tar sands extraction, oil companies pressurize the oil bed to force bitumen to the surface through cracks underground; a system that works well enough when it’s controlled, but there’s no way of telling when the pressure will cause a blowout and the bitumen will begin to seep out of control, as is happening here.
On the surface, it might look less distasteful than the open pit mining used to get at tar sands in other parts of Canada, but as soon as you look below, things get ugly. Every time oil companies pressurize deposits, they run the risk of causing a blowout, and since tar sands extraction isn’t organized around a wellhead, it’s not like they can turn it off to stop the bubbling of crude bitumen and other materials. They, along with scientists and cleanup officials, are instead forced to watch as the oil emerges and poisons the environment.
The restriction of people from the site is causing anger among members of the public and the media, but also among the Beaver Lake Cree, First Nations people who have treaty rights over the land. They’re furious to be kept out of their traditional hunting grounds, and the fact that they can’t access the area because it’s being slowly filled with toxins is salt in the wound. Like other Native American, First Nations and Alaska Natives, they’re being edged out of their traditional land and ways of life by oil and gas companies eager for the resources that lie beneath the soil, and they argue that they are being unfairly treated and poorly compensated for their trouble.
They’re right: in this case, hunting, fishing, trapping and wildcrafting edible plants in the area may not be an option for decades after the spill, forcing a radical disruption in their way of life. Ominously, this is only one of many sites oil and gas companies are interested in developing for their tar sands, raising the specter of more spills like this one in the coming years as hungry nations clamor for oil.
One key component of the demand for Canada’s tar sands oil is, of course, the Keystone XL pipeline, slated to carry just that oil through the U.S. to ports in the Gulf for international trade. If approved, the pipeline would undoubtedly stimulate even more demand — and even more spills.
Cold Lake, Alberta by Dolla Photography on Flickr