By Michael Moreci
will soon begin extracting tar sands from the Canadian wilderness, a
process Greenpeace calls 'the biggest environmental crime in history.'
1997, after British Petroleum publicly acknowledged the harmful effects
of global warming, it quickly became known as the oil company with
While other oil corporations argued that climate change didn’t
exist—most notably Exxon Mobil, which funded around 40 public policy
groups that disputed the scientific grounds for global warming—BP was
investing in emission reductions, going so far as to support the Kyoto
Protocol, the international agreement established to curb greenhouse
gases, which took effect in 2005.
In 2005, BP Alternative Energies announced it would manage an
investment program in solar and wind technologies, one that could
amount to $8 billion over seven years. The company also marketed itself
as an environmentally friendly oil corporation dedicated to moving
But a recent change in corporate policy threatens that
green-friendly image. It’s a policy that Greenpeace calls “the biggest
environmental crime in history.”
The policy involves BP breaking its long-standing, self-imposed ban
on the production of crude oil from tar sands—which are a combination
of clay, sand, various minerals and bitumen—found in the Canadian
The process of extracting and refining tar sands—also known as
Canadian crude—involves strip-mining a 50,000-square-mile span of
forest (approximately the size of Florida) located in the western
Canadian province of Alberta. The region contains an estimated 175
billion barrels of recoverable oil.
BP’s decision to tap into the Canadian wilderness is “based on
addiction, not reality,” says Ann Alexander, senior attorney at the
National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental
group. “Tar sands crude oil is dirty from start to finish. It’s bad
enough that [BP is] fouling our natural resources here in the Midwest,
but it’s completely destroying them up in Canada. There are good
sources of energy we can turn to that don’t involve turning entire
forests into a moonscape.”
For oil corporations hoping to extract crude from the area, access
is often a major hurdle. Bitumen is thick, which means tar sands can’t
be pumped from the ground the same way traditional oil is. Tar sands
need to be mined, and the deeper they are beneath the earth’s surface,
the more difficult—and harmful—the extraction.
In Alberta’s case, nearly 80 percent of the oil lays so deep
underground that it needs to be either injected with steam or put
through a “fireflood” process, which introduces compressed air to the
bitumen and burns the oil for better flow. To extract a single barrel
of bitumen from tar sands requires an energy input of 250 cubic feet of
The first step, then, involves razing vast amounts of wilderness for
open-pit mining—meaning that small plants, trees and topsoil must be
extracted by the ton. And because five barrels of water are typically
needed to produce a single barrel of crude, surrounding rivers must be
routed to the pits, then re-routed to man-made lakes of toxic sludge.
But the leveling of the Canadian wilderness is only the beginning.
Once the forest and wildlife are out of the way and the pits have been
dug, the raw process of extraction requires substantial manpower, heavy
machinery (some of which can be up to three stories tall and weigh as
much as a jetliner) and an incredible amount of energy. And that’s to
produce only a single barrel of unrefined crude oil from two tons of
Also, because of the machinery involved, tar sand extraction
generates up to four times more carbon dioxide than conventional
drilling. Over the next seven years, global warming pollutants released
into the atmosphere from tar sands oil production are projected to
quintuple to 126 megatons, up from 25 megatons in 2003, according to
the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit environmental group based in Canada.
What’s more, the tar sands industry consumes enough gas in a single
day to heat approximately 4 million American homes, according to the
Yet none of these estimates has deterred BP from going forward with
a plan to produce 200,000 barrels of Canadian crude per day over the
next 15 years.
Tar sand boom
One of the biggest hurdles in combating the Albertan tar sand boom
is Canada’s lack of environmental standards and regulations. Canada
doesn’t have a Clean Air Act like the United States does, only
guidelines. And even the guidelines the national government has in
place can be circumvented by powers granted to each province. The
Albertan government, in fact, has openly stated that it is not in line
with the Kyoto Protocol, a direct rebuff to Canada’s national pledge.
The question then raised, says Melanie Nakagawa, attorney for the
NRDC’s International Program, is “should the provinces have authority
over global warming emissions?”
Currently, 16 percent of American oil imports comes from Alberta.
And with corporations such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon already
committed to investing $125 billion in imports from Alberta over the
next 20 years, that percentage will only increase. Of the 1.25 million
barrels extracted daily from the sands, 1 million of it goes directly
to the United States. By 2020, that number could be as high as 5
million, according to the NRDC.
“Canadian crude is simply the absolute wrong direction,” the NRDC’s
Alexander says. “If you look at the new technology we have regarding
much cleaner resources, we should decide what is best. That is not
Canadian crude. It’s destructive on every level.”
Perched along Lake Michigan
Once crude is extracted from the tar sands, it still needs to be
refined before it can be used. For the most part, that refinement takes
place in the United States—and creates another set of environmental
hazards in the process.
In Whiting, Ind., where one of BP’s refineries is perched along Lake
Michigan’s shores, the company is undergoing a $3.8 billion expansion
that will allow it to refine crude oil originating from Canadian tar
sands. The expansion, which will be completed by 2011, will allow BP to
refine 260,000 barrels of Canadian crude per day, triple its current
Canadian crude contains more sulfur and carbon than traditional oil.
According to Simon Dyer, oil sands program director and policy director
for the Pembina Institute, this means that the process of refining
heavier oil has the potential to release up to four times more
In a Nov. 30 statement, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
alleged that the BP refinery in Whiting made equipment modifications
that resulted in a significant increase in sulfur dioxide, particulate
matter and carbon monoxide emissions. All are ozone-depleting chemicals
that BP, according to its website, is working to reduce “before it is
required by international and national obligations.”
The EPA stated that in 2006, BP made modifications to the fluidized
catalytic cracking unit at its Whiting plant. Developed in 1942 by
Exxon, this unit converts heavier oil, such as crude, into lighter,
more valuable products like gasoline and naphtha (a mixture used as
feedstock for producing high octane gas).
These allegations come at a time when the Indiana Department of
Environmental Management (IDEM) is reviewing the company for an update
to its air emissions permit. (BP has sought higher thresholds in the
amount of pollutants it releases.)
The review has drawn comparisons to the controversial water permit
that IDEM issued to BP in summer 2007. According to IDEM Assistant
Commissioner for the Office of Air Quality Dan Murray, as was the case
with the water permit, the air permit renewal is a reflection of the
BP has already withdrawn from IDEM’s proposed Prevention of
Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit, which would have forced BP to
take expensive steps to reduce emissions. If BP had accepted the PSD
permit, it would have been required to install the latest pollution
control technology and prove that its upgrades would not harm the
The NRDC’s Alexander has seen these methods before. The water permit
that IDEM granted BP made Indiana’s anti-degradation laws almost
meaningless, she says. And backing off the PSD permit could mean BP has
some new tricks up its sleeves.
“It’s in BP’s interest to get around the need for a PSD permit,”
Alexander says. “They can potentially accomplish that either with real
emissions reductions or with funny math.”
Tar sands extraction isn’t just another hurdle for environmentalists
to combat. It merely reveals a simple truth: when it comes to “being
green,” even the most publicly boastful of the oil corporations—such as
BP—will keep their promises only as far as their bottom line allows.
Without action, it’s empty rhetoric.
As the world continues to crawl toward environmental sustainability,
tar sands extraction, says Nakagawa, is “scraping the bottom of the
barrel to get our energy needs.”