Gulf Coast vs. Tar Sands: Environmental Deathmatch

By Brant Ran
Photos by BP and National Geographic

Last week, we reported that Canada’s tar sands have just become the biggest source of oil imports to the US. This week we compare tar sands to the other big source of US oil–the Gulf of Mexico.

Industry backers are trying hard to spin differences between tar sands and the Gulf. During a cheerleading trip to DC Germany last month Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach Environment Minister Jim Prentice speculated that the risk of tar sands development in Alberta is “probably less than the kind of risks associated with offshore drilling.” Stelmach, choosing his words a more carfefully on a simmilar mission to DC used the word “safer” when he made the same comparison.

We see more similarities. As more conventional supplies of oil dry up, deep water drilling in the Gulf and strip mining for oil in the tar sands represent the dirty, dangerous future of our oil addiction unless we break the habit.

Both regions represent a large and growing supply of oil the US. Canada’s tar sands just became the top source of imported oil (about 1 M barrels/day or just over 8%), and the Gulf of Mexico has long been the top supply of domestic production (1.6 M barrels/day or just over 30%). Analysts expect expect double digit growth in production from both regions over the next decade or so.

Both are an expensive fix too, requiring sky-high oil prices to turn a profit. Profitable production from Canada’s tar sands requires oil prices at around $100/barrel. Deep water production requires oil prices of at least $70/barrel. Despite the costs, analysts expect investors to pour more than $167 billion into deep water drilling  and more than $120 billion into Canada’s tar sands by 2014.

And then there’s the environment. There’s no doubt that the Gulf spill is a catastrophe. But Stelmach’s cynical pitch last month ignores the devastating ecological harms of strip mining for oil. A recent report from CERES concluded that the millions of gallons of toxins leaking from giant tailings ponds every year are “like the Gulf of Mexico spill, but playing out in slow motion.” For evidence, he need only look to thousand of animals that have perished in these pits, and the unusually high rates of cancer in native communities living downstream.

So who wins the Deathmatch?  Big Oil. Everybody else loses.