The Deadliest Energy Addiction

2 Apr

Shit Out, Shit OutAnd, nuclear energy is more dangerous than oil?

Bill McKibben [co-founder and director of, author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet]: The trouble with this stuff that’s spilling out of the—I mean, it would be bad enough to have a regular oil spill, right? We remember the Exxon Valdez, on and on and on. This stuff’s a whole degree of nastiness worse. It’s this—it’s called “dilbit,” diluted bitumen. It’s the tar sands. You have to heat it up, and then you have to add chemicals to even get it to flow. When it comes out of the pipe, it’s incredibly hard to clean up. You know, couple that and the fact that burning this stuff, as Jim Hansen at NASA put it, on top of everything else we burn, means “game over for the climate,” and you see that we’re kind of messing with the environment on so many fronts that it’s—I mean, it’s as if you had set out to figure out what was the worst environmental thing you could do.

Thomas Homer-Dixon adds another raft of good reasons to keep “dilbit” in the ground.

Canadians don’t universally support construction of the pipeline. A poll by Nanos Research in February 2012 found that nearly 42 percent of Canadians were opposed. Many of us, in fact, want to see the tar sands industry wound down and eventually stopped, even though it pumps tens of billions of dollars annually into our economy.

The most obvious reason is that tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities. It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.

Also, bitumen is junk energy. A joule, or unit of energy, invested in extracting and processing bitumen returns only four to six joules in the form of crude oil. In contrast, conventional oil production in North America returns about 15 joules. Because almost all of the input energy in tar sands production comes from fossil fuels, the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

There is a less obvious but no less important reason many Canadians want the industry stopped: it is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don’t like. Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.

Countries with huge reserves of valuable natural resources often suffer from economic imbalances and boom-bust cycles. They also tend to have low-innovation economies, because lucrative resource extraction makes them fat and happy, at least when resource prices are high.

Fat and happy? You mean, the 1990s? Can Americans resist the nostalgia of Dallas or the Clinton years just long enough to do some real infrastructure rebuilding?

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