Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition

Unifying the voice of a generation in environmental solidarity

Issue Briefs Part 1: Tar Sands

on December 17, 2012

In order to kick off our working groups, we decided it would be a good idea to put together some information about each issue we are working on. This information is so that other Michigan students and citizens can become more informed about each issue, as well as gain resources to learn more and ways to get engaged.

Our first issue brief is about tar sands, an issue that has gained recent national attention for the debates on whether or not to build the international Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. However, here in Michigan we’ve also been affected by this in many ways, including the devastating Enbridge 2010 tar sands spill in the Kalamazoo river and their ongoing plans to continue expanding.

So what is tar sands? Well, tar sands, oil sands, or “bituminous sands”, basically refers to thick oil that has mixed with a large area of  sand and clay due to a lot of years of natural geological uplift. For the past few decades oil companies have been extracting this bitumen from sand and clay in order to get oil that we can burn to make and do things. Currently, many companies are looking for ways to get this oil to the coasts of the US in order to export it to the rest of the world. In Michigan, pretty much all of the oil we use is this tar sands oil because we have an extensive underground pipeline network and a large refinery in Detroit, check out the map.

The largest deposits of bitumen in the world occur in Canada. In Alberta these reserves are actually the 3rd largest crude oil deposit in the world.  Although we don’t live in Canada, I feel pretty terrible for using this oil that has such a negative effect on the land, wildlife, and indigenous people in the area where they extract tar sands. Here are a couple of reasons why this extraction process just isn’t worth it:

  • It uses tons of other resources that we need!
    • Like water.  It takes from 2.5 to 4 barrels of fresh water to produce 1 barrel of tar sands oil. This water becomes polluted and at least 90% of it ends up in toxic lakes, like the one the ducks died on. These toxic lakes in Alberta CAN BE SEEN FROM SPACE and span over 30 miles.
    • And also natural gas. Processing the tar sands uses enough natural gas per day to heat 3 million homes in Canada.
  • It is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels to  produce.
    • Producing a barrel of tar sands oil emits 3x more greenhouse gases than producing a barrel of conventional oil
    • Tar sands production is the largest cause of increasing greenhouse emissions in Canada and stands to destroy their important boreal forest ecosystem. (which, if left intact, could offset emissions and provide important protection to wildlife fleeing changing climates elsewhere)

So what can we do about tar sands here in Michigan? Like I was saying, we don’t live in Canada where all of this production actually occurs, so we need to take some time to examine the power we do have to make it stop.  Although we don’t have much say in the production, other than the fact that we consume it, we do have a say in the infrastructure for tar sands in our state (or at least we should!) If you take another look at that map, you can see that these Enbridge pipelines pretty much surround our state, and run right through the Great Lakes and under the Mackinac Strait. What this map doesn’t tell you is the story of how those pipelines get to be there, and this is the story that I believe can have the greatest impact on our work.

Private landowners have had, and continue to have to, give up their land and livelihoods so that these pipelines can be built. Although Enbridge spilled nearly one million gallons of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo river (that they still haven’t been able to clean up), they are currently expanding the pipeline network and capacity in Michigan AND connecting our lines with New England lines so that they can get tar sands to the east coast for export. This entire process of creating an international tar sands pipeline has been done with very little public input and it is very clear that Enbridge has been mistreating and manipulating the landowners they are trying to work with. Additionally, we have no reason to believe that they will not spill again and this time it could be a spill right in the middle of the world’s largest (unfrozen) body of freshwater! Here are a few resources that will help you learn more about a few of these issues:

Although this all seems pretty bad, many people are standing up to tar sands and these corporations. In Texas, where they are building the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline (Which would pump oil from Canada out through the Gulf Coast for export), a diverse and strong group of people have come together to block this construction through non-violent direct action. This Texas tar sands blockade is an amazing sign of what people are willing to do when their land and livelihoods are destroyed for dirty oil profit, and the wide range of people that are affected by this.

It seems that if we stick together and demand to be treated with dignity and respect as MI residents and landowners, we stand to make a difference. Be a part of the solution and pick a way to get involved! It can be as simple as joining us against Enbridge on Facebook, or you could make the trek to DC this February to participate in the largest rally our generation will have ever seen so far to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, and call on President Obama to use his second term to take immediate climate action. AND you can even join our tarsands working group to help coordinate action around tar sands here in Michigan, just sign up here!

And please, feel free to leave a comment if you have anything to add or have any questions!

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3 responses to “Issue Briefs Part 1: Tar Sands

  1. […] The MI Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI CATS) seeks to unite the people of Michigan towards a common goal of stopping all transportation and refining of tar sands oil in the state & advocating against the production/transportation of tar sands everywhere. Join the MI-CATS facebook account Want to learn more about tar sands? Check out this blog post to learn more about the issue and what is going on with Enbridge pipelines in Michigan: https://mistudentsustain.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/issue-briefs-part-1-tar-sands/ […]

  2. […] Want to learn more about tar sands? Check out this blog post to learn more about the issue and what is going on with Enbridge pipelines in Michigan: https://mistudentsustain.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/issue-briefs-part-1-tar-sands/ […]

  3. […] In order to reach our goals, we hope to put together a broad and diverse coalition of people who are ready to take action around this incredibly important issue. We welcome any and all people who find themselves aligned with our goals to join us in this effort to unite the many groups already working around this issue so that we may take more serious and impactful actions as a collective. Want to learn more about tar sands? Check out this blog post to learn more about the issue and what is going on with Enbridge pipelines in Michigan: https://mistudentsustain.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/issue-briefs-part-1-tar-sands/ […]

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