Minnesota and Alberta Tar Sands

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A September 22 forum at St. Thomas University, Alberta Tar Sands: Minnesota’s Dirty Oil Secret explored Minnesota’s dependence on the oil sands of Alberta.


Several petroleum reserves below the surface of Alberta’s north-eastern boreal forest cover a surface area of 140,200 sq. kilometers–roughly the size of New York State. The reserves are commonly referred to as oil sands as much of the recovered material consists of sand, clay and inorganic material, while the rest contains a tar-like substance called bitumen, from which synthetic oil can be derived. A 2009 Reuters article said of the process that, “developers must blast the gooey crude with large amounts of energy-intensive steam to separate the oil from sand They burn large amounts of natural gas, emitting volumes of carbon dioxide in the process.”


According to the government of Alberta, the recoverable oil within the sands amounts to nearly 171 of the estimated 178 billion barrels of oil in Canada, establishing the northern nation as the second most oil rich in the world. Due in part to the U.S. portion of Enbridge Inc.’s Alberta Clipper pipeline system, which stretches from Fort McMurray, Alberta to Chicago, Illinois, much of Minnesota’s oil imports comes directly from Canada. Canadian oil accounts for up to 80 percent of Minnesota crude oil imports, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce.


The forum featured presentations from Simon Dyer, program director at the Pembina Institute; Clayton Thomas-Muller, author and activist of the Indigenous Environmental Network; and Michael Noble, executive director of the St. Paul non-profit, Fresh Energy.


“Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world,” said Dyer in a March 2009 National Geographic feature, “Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.”


Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist, cited the correlation between a study published in July 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found arsenic, mercury, copper, chromium, nickel, selenium, beryllium, lead, cadmium, silver, zinc, antimony and thallium, in the Athabasca River downstream from a dig site and the indigenous residents of Fort Chipewyan who were recently found to have elevated rates of cancer by the provincial cancer board.