On June 6, thousands will gather in the Twins Cities to express concern over expanded tar sands transportation through the Great Lakes region. Too much toxic and nearly impossible to clean up tar sands oil is already entering our region. The area has seen ill effects like the massive 2010 spill into the Kalamazoo River and piles of dirty, polluting coal-like petroleum coke piling up near refineries.
With the U.S. State Department giving backroom approval for a near doubling of the amount of tar sands entering the region primarily along the Alberta Clipper line, it’s time for a clean energy future. People are demanding that no new tar sands enter the region until a transparent, public review process takes place, and cleaner solutions are considered and advanced.
Not Your Granddaddy’s Oil
Tar sands oil is not like regular oil. It’s a heavy, thick substance that has to be mined by clearing forests, draining wetlands, and stripping away earth in the productive evergreen forests of Canada.
Almost 200 species of internationally protected migratory birds use the tar sands area of Alberta for seasonal habitat and breeding, including the endangered whooping crane and popular game birds like wood ducks and teal. In addition to direct habitat destruction and fragmentation, toxic tailings ponds needed to contain the waste pose an immense hazard for birds and other wildlife, with one incident resulting in about 1,600 duck fatalities.
Since it’s so thick, tar sands oil cannot be transported via pipe unless it’s diluted with a toxic gas condensate. Even then, it must be transported at high pressure, which causes the substance to heat up. There is some indication this heating process and the uneven pressure of the tar sands mixture places undue stress on pipes.
Too Risky for Wildlife
When the substance spills, it has disastrous consequences for wildlife and habitat. The diluent gases off into the air, producing a toxic cloud of benzene and other chemicals. The sticky tar sands sinks to the bottom of wetlands, rivers, streams and other water bodies, attaching itself to the bottom.
The tragic consequences were seen in my home state of Michigan in July, 2010 when an Enbridge line carrying tar sands oil ruptured. It spilled almost a million gallons of tar sands oil into theKalamazoo River and surrounding area. The spill killed or injured thousands of birds, mammals, turtles, and other wildlife. Almost 65% percent of small mammals impacted by the spill died. Forty miles of the river was sullied. Today, portions of the river are still polluted by the spill, despite multiple dredging attempts and over $1.2 billion in clean-up efforts. In 2013, a smaller tar sands spill in Arkansas has left a residential neighborhood uninhabitable.
The Alberta Clipper line crosses or runs near countless Minnesota lakes, ponds, wetlands and streams. It terminates in Superior, Wisconsin, after it crosses the Saint Louis River, a tributary of Lake Superior. From there, the tar sands oil makes its way onto a web of pipelines that flow through the Great Lakes region and beyond. More tar sands oil means a higher risk of a tar sands oil spill, with likely permanent impacts for the wildlife and habitat in the affected area.
Tar sands oil also produces much more carbon pollution than regular oil, and more tar sands oil is used as the pipelines’ capacity increases. This fuels the climate change that is likely leading dramatic declines in moose populations in Minnesota and other northern states, as well as fueling toxic algae blooms that are increasingly threatening water quality, wildlife, and recreation in the Great Lakes.
Time for Wildlife-Friendly Clean Energy
Before more tar sands oil comes into our state and region, the State Department should follow the law and make good on its commitment to have a public review process that will look at all the impacts of the project and determine if the project is necessary.
Residents throughout the Great Lakes’ region deserve a chance to have some fundamental questions asked and answered before we put our resources at risk.
The facts are increasingly clear. We don’t need tar sands oil. The risks to wildlife are too high. And we can successfully move off of oil and onto cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy that don’t pose serious threats to wildlife.
The time is now to get work. The people of the Great Lakes are ready to lead the charge for a clean energy future for wildlife. They’re asking our decisions makers to lead with them.