EarthTalk / From the Editors of E
Dear EarthTalk: What is "tar sands oil" and what is the controversy over possibly building a pipeline for it from Canada into the United States? -- Bill Berkley, Omaha, Neb.
Tar sands oil (or "tar sands") is slang for bituminous sand, a mixture of sand, clay, water and an extremely gooey form of petroleum known as bitumen, which resembles tar in appearance. Extracting commercially viable crude oil from tar sands is especially difficult because the thick and sticky mixture won't flow unless it is heated or diluted with other hydrocarbons. Turning the extracted bitumen into liquid fuel requires large inputs of energy; the process also uses, pollutes and wastes large amounts of fresh water.
Research has shown that these processes alone generate as much as four times the amount of greenhouse gases per barrel of final product as the post-extraction production of conventional oil. Taking the entire life cycle of both final products into account, the extracting, processing and burning of liquid fuel from tar sands emits between 10 and 45 percent more greenhouse gases overall than conventional crude. Extraction of oil from tar sands also damages land to the point where it can no longer sustain forestry or farming.
Despite the environmental pitfalls of harvesting oil from tar sands, those countries that have them are making the most of them. More than half of Canada's relative sizable oil production comes from the tar sands of Alberta and other areas, while Venezuela is also a big producer of tar sands oil.
Tar sands have been in the news of late because green groups and many U.S. public officials are worried that the construction of a new pipeline to transport tar sands crude from northeastern Alberta into the U.S. -- TransCanada's Keystone XL project -- would greatly increase American consumption of this carbon-intensive fuel and jeopardize U.S. efforts to reduce its oil consumption and overall carbon footprint.
Plans call for running the 2,000-mile-long pipeline all the way from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. On the way it will carry as much as 900,000 barrels of oil per day, passing through six U.S. states and possibly jeopardizing the integrity of farmland, public water sources and wildlife habitat.
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In June 2010, 50 members of Congress signed a letter asking Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to block approval of Keystone XL because it would "undermine America's clean energy future and international leadership on climate change." The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency subsequently announced that the State Department's draft environmental impact study for Keystone XL was in need of revision because it didn't sufficiently take into account oil spill response plans, safety issues and greenhouse gas concerns.
In December 2010, several concerned U.S. nonprofits -- including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club -- launched the No Tar Sands Oil campaign to urge President Obama to halt Keystone XL, which is scheduled for completion by 2013. In March 2011 some two dozen U.S. mayors got into the act, asking Secretary Clinton to stop approval on Keystone XL as it could "undermine the good work being done in local communities across the country to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil."
Dear EarthTalk: How are wild dolphins faring on the high seas? Recent reports of dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico may well be due to last year's BP oil spill, but I imagine there are many threats to dolphins from pollution, human overfishing and other causes. -- Henry Milken, Atlanta
Dolphins are probably the most iconic and best loved species of the marine world. Their playful nature and high intelligence have endeared them to people for eons. But our love of dolphins might not be enough to save them from extinction brought on by overfishing, pollution, climate change and other environmental affronts perpetrated by humans.
The nonprofit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a worldwide "Red List" of at-risk wildlife species, considers 36 of the world's 40 different dolphin species to be in trouble. Yes, specific events can cause problems for dolphins -- researchers believe that the deaths of 300 dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico over the last year can be blamed on the BP oil spill there. But more widespread and constant forms of pollution -- such as run-off of agricultural and industrial chemicals into rivers that drain into coastal areas of the ocean where dolphins spend much of their time -- are having a more lasting negative effect on dolphins by poisoning them and causing reproductive problems.
Also, dolphins have long been the unwitting victims of fishermen targeting large prey, such as tuna. According to Defenders of Wildlife, fishermen started to notice a half century ago that schools of yellow fin tuna seemed to follow dolphins that swim higher in the water column, especially in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
"Fishermen there have consequently found that setting nets on dolphins to catch the tuna swimming underneath is a lucrative technique for tuna fishing, despite the fact that the practice is extremely injurious to dolphins," reported the group, adding that some seven million dolphins have since been killed as a result of the practice.
Also, our unrelenting demand for seafood -- which has caused rampant overfishing throughout the world's oceans -- means that dolphins, which feed on smaller fish such as mackerel, cod and herring as well as squid, are having a harder and harder time finding food. And in Turkey, Peru, Sri Lanka, Japan and elsewhere, dolphins are hunted as a delicacy and also to decrease competition for fish resources.
As if these problems weren't enough, climate change also looms as one of the biggest threats of all to dolphins.
"Due to the rapidly rising oceans temperatures, the dolphin's primary food sources are seeking deeper cooler waters," reported the Defenders of Wildlife. "Scientists are concerned that the dolphins will have difficulty adapting as quickly as necessary to find new feeding grounds to sustain their populations."
But although the situation seems dire for dolphins, many countries and thousands of scientists remain committed to helping them survive. Marine mammal advocates are optimistic that the Panama Declaration, an international agreement signed in 1997 by several Eastern Tropical Pacific countries and others that bans using dolphins to track tuna, has already helped curtail the process that has been so destructive. Whether these efforts will suffice to get dolphin populations healthy enough to deal with what promises to be the biggest challenge yet to their survival--global warming -- remains to be seen.
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