EXTREME ENERGY - It's not just Canada, it's not just tar sands...

The main purpose of International Stop the Tar Sands Day is to raise awareness about the destructiveness of tar sands development in northern Alberta, Canada. We believe it is important the world finds out about the Albertan tar sands in particular because they are one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world. But it is also important to recognize extreme energy or unconventional fossil fuels like the tar sands are unfortunately everywhere.

Tar sands development is going global. The second largest tar sands deposit in the world can be found in the southern Orinoco River Basin of Venezuela. The Italian oil company ENI not only has tar sands projects in the Orinoco River Basin but in the Republic of Congo as well. Other African tar sands operations can be found in Nigeria and Madagascar (fortunately, this one was stopped in 2011 for financial reasons). In 2010, the US state of Utah approved the very first American tar sands project. Russia is said to have vast tar sands deposits. The province neighboring Alberta - Saskatchewan - is in the process of getting its tar sands industry off the ground.  Tar sands can even be found in Trinidad & Tobago.

Oil shale is the other unconventional oil that needs to be stopped. Oil shale (more or less oil locked in rock) requires even more energy than tar sands to process and thus produces more greenhouse gas emissions. The extraction and processing of oil shale is almost indentical to tar sands with a few differences. For example, oil shale usually needs to be heated up twice before it can be sent to refineries, whereas tar sands are heated once. Operations are either approved or already underway in Estonia, Australia (Queensland and South Australia) and North Dakota, USA. Oil shale can also be found in Israel and Jordan. In early 2011, development began on the massive oil shale deposit in south Texas.

And then there is fracking for unconventional gas (also known as coal seam gas, coal bed methane or shale gas). This is like the natural gas version of the tar sands. Fracking or hydraulic fracturing simply involves drilling a vertical hole 100 to 3000 meters underground until it penetrates the shale (rock that contains natural gas). Small explosions are set off in the shale to break it up, and then pressurized water loaded with chemicals is shot down the hole to force the natural gas up and out.

Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels and when compared to developing tar sands or oil shale, gas fracking produces considerably less CO2, but fracking is riddled with environmental and social problems. Water tables have been contaminated and poisoned due to the chemicals used in fracking or the natural gas leaking into the groundwater (the pipes used in fracking have a bad tendency of cracking). In some cases of water contamination people have been able to literally set their tap water on fire. Health problems have also been reported in communities close to fracking operations. It is still unclear how much methane is released during fracking operations. Methane has twenty-five times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. 

Gas fracking is also going global. Shale gas can be found all over the US (Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming) and Canada (Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, BC). The Australian government fully supports coal seam gas (CSG) as way to get Australia off coal. There have already been major CSG developments in Queensland, but permits for CSG operations have been handed out all over the country. Poland and the Karoo in South Africa are both said to have shale gas deposits. Due to public outcry the French government banned fracking operations in 2011.

The tar sands, oil shale and gas fracking make up the three headed monster that is extreme energy or unconventional fossil fuels. They require using more extreme, environmentally damaging methods than their predecessors (conventional fossil fuels) to get at resources that are better off left in the ground. The use of conventional fossil fuels has already pushed climate change dangerously close to the point where we will no longer be able to stop the world from heating up. Why would we then use unconventional fossil fuels which produce even more greenhouse gas emissions and are even more damaging to us and the environment? We need to turn towards renewable and sustainable sources of energy (wind, solar, geothermal etc) that produce little to no GHG emissions instead going with the three headed monster.

This International Stop the Tar Sands Day let our voice to stop gas fracking and oil shale be as loud as our voice to stop the tar sands. The unconventional fossil fuels industry is just getting started so there is still a good chance we can stop it. If those of us standing up to the tar sands, oil shale and gas fracking work together locally and internationally our chances of stopping this industry will greatly improve. In fact, we may just be unstoppable!  

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