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In preparing for local conservation commission meetings over the past year, I have been learning more about tar sands, also known as heavy oil sands, the pipelines that transport oil sands, and the potential impacts they have on water resources. Previously, I had heard about the tar sands and oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 and the crude oil spill in Yellowstone in 2011 (MT), but I did not know much about tar sands extraction and transportation into North America. A year ago, media reported a revised or reinvented New England proposal for an Enbridge pipeline project. I’ve read a number of useful background documents on state, regional and national issues related to tar sands crude oil pipelines on the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s website, as well as annual reports from pipeline companies and studies commissioned by TransCanada, Canada’s National Energy Board and other interest groups, not all pro-environment.  In April 2012, the National Wildlife Federation published a report, “After the Marshall Spill: Oil Pipelines in the Great Lakes Region,” which assesses the regulatory issues involved in protecting wetlands and waters in the Great Lakes from similar disasters in the future. The Town of Raymond has posted a number of useful background documents, media reports, studies and assessments here.

From local issues to national concerns:  The topic of tar sands crude oil pipeline proposals in my community of Maine is echoed throughout the New England region, and throughout the U.S. all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In southern Maine, Sebago Lake, the source of drinking water for the city of Portland, Maine and surrounding towns, plays a prominent role in a number of environmental advocacy groups’ efforts to halt proposals for pumping tar sands through the state. The pipeline currently runs from South Portland, Maine through the Lakes Region towns, crossing Panther Run and the Crooked River, two tributaries that feed Sebago Lake. This is just one small area of the longer pipeline, which would cross through many other watersheds throughout New England.

After I presented information at my town’s conservation commission meetings, where I volunteer, I ran into a few neighbors and residents who commented on the issue of a tar sands pipeline proposal that could have an impact on Maine’s watersheds and natural resources.  One business owner said, “They’re still cleaning up the spill in Michigan! If that happened here, we’d be done.” Similar views have been expressed at town meetings, on PBS presentations (winter 2012) and at university informational sessions in southern Maine. The Natural Resources Council of Maine has an ongoing project informing citizens about the proposal and its potential impacts to Maine, as well as the Enbridge proposals for tar sands pipelines elsewhere in the country. For a fact sheet on Tar Sands, Keystone Pipeline Project in Maine (2012), click here.

What are tar sands and where do they come from? Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a heavy black viscous oil.  The process extracts the bitumen from the other materials and requires other treatment before it can be refined.  It is so thick it requires dilution with additional hydrocarbons before it can be transported through pipelines when it can be later turned into conventional heating oil. This process of transporting it in pipelines has many potentially hazardous impacts to water and other natural resources in the event of a spill.  Once the tar sands crude oil is transported, the process of turning it into conventional oil is not cost-effective or ecologically sensible.  The process releases more than double the harmful greenhouse gasses than conventional heating oil does during production. (See Scientific American.) Currently, the bulk of the tar sands originate in Alberta, Canada—where large pools called tar pits have replaced wetlands. These tar pits are big enough to be seen from space. The most threatened habitat are Canada’s boreal forests, which is 1.3 billion acres of wetlands—among the largest in-tact wetland ecosystems on Earth. Unfortunately, most of the wastewater involved with the tar sands production ends up in streams and rivers throughout the boreal forest, contaminating the wetlands and threatening bird and wildlife habitat. For Alberta’s Government webpage on oil sands, click here.

According to mining company reports, 64% of the mining landscape is made up of peatlands. (See related study, “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon.”)  There’s some effort underway to restore the wetlands that have been affected by tar sands in Alberta. Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation: Syncrude, Suncor Plan To Reconstruct Fens  It’s unconventional wetland restoration on a large scale. Essentially they’re hoping to recreate a 50-hectare watershed, not just a wetland, for one project. That’s about 125 acres of wetlands and waters. The University of Waterloo’s department of geography and environmental management is involved with the watershed restoration planning. It’s been called a Tar Sands Wetlands Reclamation.  However, some Canadian wetland scientists are doubtful that this will work to restore the wetlands.  They say, “Instead of bogs and fens, the industry will build hills topped by plantation forests and fill large man-made lakes with toxic waste bordered by shrubs and salty marshes.” (Rooney, et.al., 2011)

“It’s a completely different landscape,” says study co-author Suzanne Bayley, one of Canada’s top wetland ecologists and a University of Alberta professor. See Scientists Doubt Fix to Wetlands Damaged by Oil Sands Furthermore, fewer wetlands means drier conditions and more fire hazards. See a related presentation on The State of Oil Sands Wetlands Reclamation and Slow Down Oil Sands to Save Wetlands, Scientist Says –with details from a related study of Canadian wetlands. For an Alberta wetlands fact sheet by Water Matters, click here. Also check out some of the information from NRDC, et.al.  linked below, if you’re interested.

Tar Sands Invasion: How Dirty and Expensive Oil from Canada Threatens America’s New Energy Economy By NRDC, Earth Works, Sierra Club, et. al. – May 2010.  The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said this week that Enbridge paid a $3.7 million penalty for the 2010 incident. U.S. investigators suggested the company knew of line defects five years before the accident. EPA’s webpage on the Kalamazoo River spill can be found here. 



Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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