“Beware the dreaded tar sands!” warns a growing chorus of climate justice activists. Villainized perhaps more than any other fossil fuel, tar sands has become in some people’s estimation nothing less than a horrible monster — elbowing its way uninvited into our communities, destroying our precious land and water. Is this a particularly jaundiced view or is it backed up with evidence? In order to answer that question, we need to first explain what tar sands are and what makes them so frightening.
Simply stated, tar sands are sedimentary rocks that contain bitumen, a heavy hydrocarbon that can be turned into usable oil through a lengthy process that requires a tremendous amount of energy. In the Colorado Plateau, tar sands deposits are typically as hard as asphalt.
In fact, for many years, that was their primary use — to
pave roads — after being proven a particularly poor source of fuel energy. This hasn’t changed. However, with the price of crude oil rising, the extraction of tar sands for fuel is now seen as a profit-making alternative.
A Feat of Energy
Getting oil out of rock requires a gigantic effort. First, the mining company must strip mine the land (also called open pit mining) and crush the rock contained with it, then use a complex series of processes to extract oil from the latter. After the oil is transported to a refinery, it must undergo another complex series of processes to turn the bitumen (tar sands oil) into usable fuel. These processes are incredibly energy intensive, producing three times the CO2 produced by mining and refining regular crude. In Canada, the tar sands industry is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases,
creating 40 million tons of CO2 per year — a big part of why the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline faces so much opposition. For this reason, fossil fuel experts call bitumen “junk energy,” because in comparison to crude oil, its rate of energy return is extremely low.
In fact, that’s why a previous tar sands mine was abandoned in 1983, in the PR Springs area that we and our allies are working to protect. The equipment was abandoned and the company made no attempt to remediate the site.
A Land at Risk
In Canada, tar sands strip mining has devastated the once-beautiful boreal forest. Follow this link to see some heartbreaking pictures of the region.
Most U.S. tar sands deposits lie in eastern Utah, where the first tar sands mine could begin commercial operations this year (2013). For the past twelve months, members of Peaceful Uprising, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, and other climate justice allies have been exploring the targeted area and have discovered that it contains an abundance of wildlife. Running into a coyote at the watering hole, stumbling upon a herd of twenty-four elk, and discovering bear scratchings on trees — these are everyday events out at PR Springs, the beautiful high desert land that U.S. Oil Sands’ tar sands development could soon erase.
Unfortunately, “erase” describes the probable consequences. Once US Oil Sands destroys this wilderness—scrapes away what it considers the “overburden” (to us, towering aspen, spruce, and Doug fir; wild horses, turkeys, and mountain lions; dense canyons with meandering streams) — it won’t come back. Nor does U.S. Oil Sands truly believe it can rehabilitate this habitat after mining is completed, leaving this land, in its own chilling words, “as clean as beach sand.”
Even if it were possible to leave tar sands rubble as clean as beach sand, we don’t want white sand where pristine rivers and streams once carved this land into an endless series of sprawling green canyons and soaring ridgelines.
How much land is at stake? U.S. Oil Sands holds roughly 32,000 acres of leases of state public lands at PR Springs, and the BLM plans to open around 130,000 acres of federal public lands in Utah for tar sands mining. The BLM also plans to open 700,000 acres in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for the mining of oil shale, which is another type of oil-containing sedimentary rock. Like tar sands, oil shale — or more accurately, tar shale — requires massive amounts of energy to extract and refine, and it has similar human health and ecosystem impacts. All of this means that the fight to stop the nation’s first tar sands mine has much broader implications, potentially changing the fate of nearly a million acres of wilderness.
Tar sands mining wouldn’t just harm the wildlife of PR Springs. It would also poison the water of over 30 million people. From the PR Springs area, water flows down Main Canyon into the Green River, which eventually joins with the Colorado.
When tar sands are extracted, dangerous compounds locked into the rock, like mercury and arsenic, are released, and these would be washed down the canyon into the Colorado River watershed.
About 78 percent of the Colorado River’s water goes to farmland—to feed people—producing 15 percent of the nation’s crops. Poison that water with carcinogens, and compounds that cause birth defects and mutations—and which are toxic in parts per trillion—and we’ll be facing a human health nightmare.
And that’s not even counting the prospect of tar sands spills, which are far more dangerous and difficult to clean up than regular crude.
To make matters worse, climate change and overuse are already drying up the Colorado River, earning it the dubious distinction of being America’s most endangered river. Since both tar sands mining and refining use vast amounts of water, they would severely lower river levels, taking water away from communities and farmers. Already, the communities of the Colorado River delta live in a parched land. The Colorado doesn’t have enough water to reach the ocean, and tar sands extraction would further dry up the river until yet more communities become immersed in a daily struggle for precious water.
The Cucapá people of the Colorado River delta feel the reality of drought every day. The cycles of life in their once lush homeland have been completely destroyed. Where once they planted squash, beans, and melons in the rich soil fertilized by the river, all that’s left are salt flats and dry river channels. The Colorado disappears before it even crosses the border on the way to their land. “I hope one day to see the river rise again,” one elder said in an interview with National Geographic. But that hope remains a distant and unlikely dream—a dream that tar sands mining in Utah would shatter beyond repair.
In Canada, toxins from the tar sands mines are giving indigenous people in the downriver communities rare types of cancer, and causing genetic mutations in wildlife. These toxins—which are toxic in parts per trillion—spread through the air as well as the water.
Photographer Garth Lenz, in a TED talk, tells a powerful story about his visit to the Canadian tar sands. As he talked with a local man, the man cautioned him to never to eat the fish from the river, describing them as poisoned by the massive tar sands mines downstream. When Lenz went to the man’s house, he saw fish curing on the front porch. He realized that the man had no choice but to feed his family food that he had described to a stranger as poisoned.
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Refining tar sands pollutes communities’ air even more than refining regular crude. In North Salt Lake and the broader valley, we already deal with air so toxic there are days when it’s hard to see across the street.
Commercial-scale tar sands refining would make our air even worse—and with people dying an average of two years early on the Wasatch front, and with high rates of asthma, we can’t afford to let our air get any worse.
In Houston, communities deal with tar sands refining every day. The neighborhood of Manchester has it worse than just about anyone. Like many communities around toxic industry sites, the residents are people who have been historically (and currently) marginalized, made up primarily of Latinos(as), African-Americans, and undocumented immigrants.
Around the world, people are dealing with the severe impacts of climate change, which tar sands extraction and refining will only exacerbate. The most marginalized peoples usually feel the effects of climate change most, partly because when natural disasters caused by climate change impact their home, they have nowhere else to go. Today, the world has at least 26 million climate refugees, people who had to flee their homes due to flooding, desertification, or other climate change consequences over which they have no control. The Cucapá people of the Colorado River basin, for example, have been forced to move to higher ground because of unprecedented storms, causing massive flooding. There they try to scrape by on land where they have no water rights.
When we use the phrase climate justice, we speak of the urgent need to remedy both the causes and the effects of climate change. The residents of Houston suffer from one of its central causes, the spewing of toxins into the atmosphere from dirty fuels produced in nearby refineries. Meanwhile, communities around the world deal with drought, flooding, and colossal storms that are the effects of climate change. In the U.S., we saw this happen with Hurricane Sandy and the recent super-storms in Oklahoma.
As residents of the Wasatch Front, we should refuse to allow big polluters in our community to cause more climate chaos. We need to take responsibility for helping to stop our country’s disproportional contribution to worldwide climate change, and for not allowing a single company to profit from tar sands or tar shale mining in the U.S.
Tar sands mining companies like U.S. Oil Sands claim they’ll create jobs, but for every new job, how many will be destroyed? Tourism plays a central role in our regional economy. Many tar sands deposits border on our most cherished national parks—among them, Escalante, Canyonlands, and Arches. By allowing mining in these areas, we would be acquiescing to these companies filling our air with dust pollution, allowing light and noise pollution to permeate the stillness, and obscuring our starry skies. Prime wilderness areas like the San Raphael Swell are at risk of being mined in the future, erasing their spectacular beauty and rich habitat forever. This devastation would negatively impact river guides, hotel and store operators, as well as many others who rely indirectly on tourism for their living.
Meanwhile, oil boom town economies have their own perils. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, an influx of tar sands workers has brought on a slew of social and economic problems. Ordinary people have trouble paying their rent and buying food because of inflation. Young, transitory men make up a large portion of the town, triggering high levels of drug abuse and crime. Suicide and divorce rates have skyrocketed due to the social turmoil. When boom economies collapse, it brings more trouble—families are often left with nothing, robbed of the stability they were promised. All in all, a tar sands and tar shale economy stands in stark contrast with the kind of world we want to create.
Signs of Hope
The impacts of tar sands and tar shale will haunt the world for generations to come if we allow it to continue, contributing to massive climate change that threatens humanity. It will leave communities with either no water, or polluted water, most likely increasing the rates of birth defects, cancer, and genetic mutations.
But people are finally waking up. Across the country, the movement against extreme extraction has caught fire. From Idle No More round dances to tar sands pipeline blockades,
the resistance is engaging in courageous actions that are igniting popular outrage against tar sands and tar shale mining. Indigenous groups from British Columbia to Minnesota are leading the fight, and as a climate justice group, PeaceUp is committed to the ongoing struggle. A strong resistance movement is building in Utah, drawing national allies as well as local communities. Together, we can keep tar sands and tar shale mining out of the United States for good.
That’s why in Utah, we’re holding an action camp to stop tar sands mining from happening in the U.S.
What Can You Do?
Resistance work requires daily commitment and major sacrifices on the part of organizers and community members. We must be willing to put our bodies on the line or to support those who do. For every person who gets arrested in the name of climate justice, a team of support people is needed — providing everything from legal aid to publicity.
To engage in resistance against tar sands in Utah, we also need funding. Funds will go toward bringing in experienced trainers, supplementing costs of living for full or part-time organizers, providing legal aid to those who need it, traveling to communities with whom we are collaborating, and offering scholarships to bring people from marginalized communities to action camps. Click here to learn more about how a donation to Peaceful Uprising will help to stop tar sands mining from ever beginning in the U.S.
Organizing a fundraiser is a great way to participate in the campaign — it lets you teach others why we need to stop tar sands mining together, in addition to raising funds for the cause.
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In addition to monetary help, we need your help in organizing others. Actions you can take include:
1) Set up a tar sands teach-in with your community or group (we’ll share our presentation with you to make this easy);
2) Bring a group of friends or associates to one of Utah Tar Sands Resistance’s camp outs at PR Springs, the site of the proposed tar sands mine, or work with us to organize your own camp out; and
3) Attend Peaceful Uprising events to get to know the broader PeaceUp community and to learn more about its anti-tar sands campaign.
So please join us in our effort to stop tar sands and tar shale mining in Utah—and in the rest of the country—knowing that you’re contributing to the creation of a better world for your children, grandchildren, and all the generations to come.