Tar Sands Oil Seen As Bad News All Around

Sandy Levine | @CLFLevine

Vermont has a key role to play in keeping tar sands oil where it belongs — in the ground.

The increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands oil from Canada through an existing pipeline in the Northeast Kingdom brings this issue very close to home.

At town meetings across the state earlier this month, 29 Vermont communities passed resolutions opposing the transportation and use of tar sands oil. This was a clear message that Vermonters don’t want to be complicit in the next chapter on climate destruction.

As with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama can nix any proposal to bring tar sands through Vermont. Congressional members, including Vermont’s delegation, have called on the president to give any plan to bring tar sands through New England a searching environmental review.

We are a small state, but we have already borne more than our fair share of climate-change disasters. Stopping tar sands oil in its tracks and keeping it out of Vermont moves us in the right direction on climate change and helps avoid more climate devastation.

Tar sands oil, a gritty tar-like substance extracted from the sands of Alberta, Canada, is very different and far more damaging to our climate than conventional oil. It leaves behind a big mess and literally digs us deeper into the hole of climate change.

In a recent Scientific American article, editor David Biello reports that tar sands oil emits twice the greenhouse gas per barrel as conventional oil. As we seek newer and cleaner energy sources, using oil that is twice as dirty sends us hurtling at warp speed in exactly the wrong direction.

The nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says the exploitation of tar sands oil will mean “game over” for the climate. It’s not just that tar sands oil is twice as dirty — there is also a lot of it. The government of Alberta estimates that it has available proven reserves of over 170 billion barrels of tar sands oil. That makes it the third largest proven reserve in the world, enough oil to meet Canada’s current demand for four hundred years.

The tar sands oil in Alberta sits beneath an area that is roughly the size of Florida. The reserves are vast and bountiful — not what we want from a resource that is extra dirty.

Doubling down on tar sands keeps us sadly hooked on oil, hooked on climate disasters for centuries and delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies.

Tar sands oil creates other problems as well. The oil is extracted in enormous open pits, leaving vast destruction in its wake. Large areas are left uninhabitable for wildlife. Migratory birds get trapped in the waste pits.

And tar sands oil is corrosive, meaning greater wear and tear on pipelines — many of which are more than 60 years old, like the one in the Northeast Kingdom.

Spills of tar sands oil are far worse and more difficult to clean up than ordinary spills. The 2010 spill of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is already the most expensive pipeline oil spill in U.S. history, and cleanup may never be complete.

In short, tar sands oil is bad news all around.

Vermonters are not idly standing by. In addition to the town meeting resolutions, the Legislature is considering a bill that would require a review of any proposal to move tar sands oil through Vermont.

And a number of environmental groups and citizens recently filed a legal action requesting that any plans to use the existing pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law — Act 250 — to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel.

The resolve of Vermonters can help keep tar sands oil in the ground and show how responsible action to tackle climate change can leave a clean legacy for our children.

This article was originally published as a Weekly Planet column in the Environment Section of the Rutland Herald/Times Argus newspapers on March 17, 2013. You can find a copy here.

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