The Truth is the Whole – Two stories connecting the dots between energy and the environment from a social justice perspective (Part 1)
Last Sunday I found myself in the lucky position of giving a presentation on the social and environmental impacts of fossil fuel depletion to a local Unitarian Universalist church group – the UUC Green Sanctuary Team. (And I’d like to send a special thanks to Susan Wetstone, and Cathy Tuttle, Joann Kerr, Kathy Pelish for finding these great venues!)
Rather than taking the standard route – showing a bunch of slides with technical data – I decided instead to tell the life stories of two people, Russell and Maria. While both are fictional characters, their situations are very real and historically accurate. In other words, there are thousands of real people whose lives share much in common with either Russell or Maria.
I hope you enjoy the stories and find them compelling portraits of the state of the world and your place in it. Because the stories are a bit long, I will split them between two posts…
Part 1: Russell
Russell is a young man, though his reserved nature and haggard appearance give every impression that he is much older than 26 years of age. A member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Russell is the youngest of countless generations of Mikisew Cree to live off natural gifts of the boreal forest and Lake Athabasca.
Like his father, Russell is a commercial freshwater fisherman, catching lake trout and pike from a small, flat-bottomed skiff. On the bow of his skiff, in faded and cracked paint, read the words “Clear Water”, the name that Russell’s father painted on the aluminum hull more than 30 years ago.
Russell’s life is difficult, though he would never admit as much. Fish stocks have declined, and many of the fish he now catches are inedible – deformed or blistered from exposure to industrial chemicals. As a consequence, every year Russell must spend more hours fishing than the year before, and despite working longer hours his income has been steadily eroded, but Russell won’t complain. In his mind, he can always work harder.
Unfortunately working harder can’t solve the other side of his financial problem. Intense localized inflation fueled by the upstream boom in tarsands production has driven the cost of living up dramatically in recent years.
You see, Russell lives in a small house with his extended family in a lakeside town called Fort Chipewyan. Fort Chip, as the locals prefer to call it, is located just a few dozen miles downstream from Fort McMurray, the town at the heart of the Canadian tarsands revolution.
The tarsands, or oilsands, as the oil industry has decided to market them in recent years, comprise one of the largest energy provinces in the world. But the tarsands are unique not just in size; they are a rare geologic feature. Only one other similar formation is known to exist – the Orinoco tar sands located in Venezuela.
The vast majority of conventional oil is trapped in subterranean reservoirs where intense pressure keeps most gaseous hydrocarbons – like propane and butane – liquified. And being protected from the atmosphere, lighter liquid hydrocarbons, like the ones that comprise gasoline and diesel fuel, are protected from evaporation.
By contrast, the tar sands are a surface feature, and as a consequence, most of the ‘lighter’ hydrocarbons – those that exist in either a gaseous or liquid state – long ago escaped into the atmosphere, leaving behind only the long-chain, most complex hydrocarbons known as asphaltenes or bitumen.
Asphaltenes are so long and complex that they behave more like solids than liquids under normal atmospheric temperatures and pressures. In fact, as their name suggests, asphaltenes comprise a large component of asphalt, and one could argue that the tar sands are in fact more similar to the roads we drive on than the fuel that we put in the gas tanks of our cars.
As a consequence of their chemical composition and physical properties, the extremely long-chained hydrocarbons must be ‘cracked’ into shorter liquid hydrocarbons even before they can be sent to a refinery. And, of course, before the hydrocarbons can be ‘cracked’ or upgraded, the aggregate in which they are trapped must first be mined, and transported to an upgrading facility.
Once the tar sands arrive at the upgrading facility, the long-chain asphaltenes are separated from the aggregate and cracked through a process of steam injection. And through the steam injection process, other once-trapped elements, like nitrogen; sulfur; heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and cyanide; and a host of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also released.
Hence, the upgrading process generates four important material streams as output:
- synthetic crude which is sent to a refinery
- aggregate which is supposed to eventually be back-hauled to the extraction site and used as in-fill once the mining project has been completed
- a host of greenhouse gasses (natural gas is used to boil the water to make the steam required for the cracking process), and
- extremely toxic water, which is piped to huge, earthen-walled tailings ponds that have been built along the Athabasca River.
As you can imagine, this process in which millions of tons of aggregate are mined, transported to an upgrading facility, and given a steam bath, is energy intensive, capital intensive, and water intensive.
In fact, the energy return on energy invested in tar sands production is as low as 3 to 1. This means that the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil must be consumed in order to get 3 barrels of upgraded crude.
As the energy return on energy investment approaches one to one, we are making an even trade of one energy source for another, and from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective, an energy return of one to one means that from a full life cycle perspective, nearly double the amount of greenhouse gasses are emitted per gallon of tarsands derived gasoline as are emitted by conventional oil sources like the old fields in the Persian Gulf which for many decades operated at an energy return on energy investment ratio closer to 100:1.
And as I’m sure most of you are aware, freshwater is a scarce resource that we consume at a far greater rate than the natural hydrologic cycle is able to support. Consequently, freshwater aquifers like the Ogallala which extends from South Dakota to Texas are being drawn down at an alarming rate.
From a water perspective, tar sands production is impressive to say the least.
Twelve barrels of water are consumed for each barrel of oil produced, and three barrels of toxic sludge are produced as a byproduct (source: Nikiforuk). To put this water consumption into perspective, more than a million barrels of synthetic crude are produced every day in the Canadian province. This means that 12 million barrels of water are consumed during the hydrocracking process. This is equivalent to the amount of water that the citizens of an average US city with a population of a quarter million would consume.
As a consequence of high energy inputs, tar sands production only became economically viable when the price for crude started to climb through the $70 per barrel mark. Of course, once the initial capital investment has been made, production tends to carry on even if the price dips.
Because tarsands production is so expensive, capital did not flood into Fort McMurray until the crude price run which started in 1998 was well underway. And as capital flooded the small town, the demand for workers grew rapidly… and we’re not just talking about jobs in the oil patch because the influx of tar sands workers bought or rented housing, and spent much of their earnings at local establishments.
So as the price for crude oil climbed from $25 per barrel in 1998 to $147 per barrel in 2008, investments poured in to the region and tarsands production expanded rapidly.
As tarsands production expanded, the demand for labor grew and labor markets became incredibly tight. When there were more jobs in the oil patch to be filled than workers to fill them, wages shot up.
Similarly, the costs of housing and food shot up as workers migrated into the region. Of course fuel prices were on the rise as well, because thanks to NAFTA, Canadians must compete for Canadian oil which is sold on the world market, and they must therefore pay the inflated prices despite the fact that the oil is produced from their land.
And all these inflationary pressures spilled over from the small town of Fort McMurray, and the citizens of Fort Chip located just downstream soon started to feel the negative impacts of inflation as well.
So while Russell was earning a bit more for the fish that he sold at the local market, his slightly higher earnings were overwhelmed by rising expenses.
The diesel that fueled his skiff had increased in price by roughly 400% in just a few years, and Russell’s rent had increased by 50% in that time. And since tarsands producers use immense quantities natural gas to power the steam injection process, local energy prices shot up and Russell found himself paying far more to keep his family warm through the long, cold winter months.
Like many Mikisew Cree, Russell lives with his extended family. He has a 23 year old younger sister named Eva whose room is just across the hall from his. Eva is very smart and amiable, and despite being siblings, their personalities could not, in fact, be any more different. Eva is outgoing, engaging, and energetic. There is an honesty and optimism in her eyes that belies her condition. A few years ago Eva was diagnosed with cervical cancer at age 17. While surgery and chemotherapy saved her life, it also left her infertile, and she explains that the scars on her womb don’t compare to the scars left on her heart.
Eva is not the only member of Russell’s family to have been diagnosed with cancer. In April of 2006, Russell’s mother was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma – a very rare and deadly cancer of the bile ducts. Six weeks after the diagnosis was made by Dr. John O’Connor, Russell and Eva bid their final farewell to their mother and said a prayer.
Russell’s cousin, Warren, was diagnosed with testicular cancer as a young man, and Russell’s aunt died of uterine cancer a few years before his mother.
But Russell is not alone in mourning. The cancer rate in Fort Chip is 30% higher than medical doctors like Dr. O’Connor would predict. Fort Chip, in fact, is well known as a cancer cluster. And though cholangiocarcinoma – the cancer that so rapidly sapped the life from Russell’s mother – is extremely rare – inflicting on average only 1-2 cases in 100,000 – three of Fort Chip’s residents have recently died of the disease… and the population of Fort Chip is just over 1,000.
In 2006, Dr. O’Connor became very concerned shortly after diagnosing Russell’s mother with the disease, and engaged an epidemiological study which identified Fort Chip as a cancer cluster.
So what exactly was Dr. O’Connor concerned about, and how does this link to tarsands production? The preliminary results of his study suggested that the risk factors associated with the cancers that were prevalent in Fort Chip must be geographically concentrated. There must be something about Fort Chip that contributes to the high cancer incidence rate.
And oral histories and partial medical records suggest that these high rates of cancer are a very recent phenomenon.
For these reasons, Dr. O’Connor became concerned that heavy metals and carcinogenic PAHs were leeching from the tailings ponds and into the Athabasca River where they were, and are, accumulating in the flesh of the fish that Russell and fellow fishermen caught in their native fishing hole – Lake Athabasca.
Dr. O’Connor followed the edicts of the precautionary principle, which states that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” In this case, the burden of proof that chemicals leeching from the tailings ponds do not pose downstream risks falls on the tarsands producers. Tarsands producers must prove that the chemicals they are releasing into the Athabasca River are not harmful to the residents of Fort Chip or the environment more generally.
Note that I did not say that the tar sands producers had to prove that toxin-laced water was not leeching from their tailings ponds. The tarsands producers are, in fact, well-aware that this is happening on a massive scale. According to Andrew Nikiforuk, who wrote a wonderful book about the tarsands, it has been estimated, by the oil industry no less, that more than a million gallons of toxin laced water seep through the earthen walls and into the Athabasca River every day.
So, here we have one of the worst manmade environmental catastrophes unfolding right before our eyes, and rather than taking a stand we are moving forward with the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline which will transport upgraded bitumen – synthetic crude – from Fort McMurray down into the US where it will be refined into extremely valuable and useful fuels that Americans will inevitably purchase… and waste.
Now let’s think about Russell’s options. It is likely that the fish he has been catching, eating, feeding to his family, and selling to his friends are in fact one of the vectors underlying the cancer bloom.
But what other employment option does he have? The only jobs that pay wages which keep up with the rising cost of living are in the oil industry itself, but in working for Suncor, Shell, or any of the other tarsands producers, Russell will be contributing to the environmental, social, and health catastrophe that has devastated his community in Fort Chip.
Of all the injustices in this story, perhaps the most insidious of all is that the structure of our global society has transferred the risks and the burdens associated with consumption patterns that support our current lifestyles onto the collective backs of native people’s not just in Fort Chip, but all across the world.
And perhaps even more insidious than this is the tremendous emotional and moral burden that our lifestyles force onto others like Russell – who now carries the guilt of feeding poisoned fish to his own mother.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the story of Maria, NAFTA, corn ethanol production, and the ‘tortilla crisis’