Thursday, 1 September 2011

Film Review - Dirty Oil


Dirty Oil, which was on at the Showroom cinema in November, is a deeply shocking film by Leslie Iwerks about Canada’s tar sands, in the state of Alberta. It describes the area affected by tar sand extraction, the impact this has had on the local environment and the local people, the impact in the US where it arrives, and the wider impact on the whole world.

Tar sands are sands rich in oil that occur all over the world. One of the biggest deposits lies under the Canadian boreal or coniferous forest, which is one of the last great pristine forests on earth.

The area now affected by the mining of tar sand is about the size of England. The word “affected” does not begin to describe the scale of the damage: vast tracts of the forest have been destroyed to make way for open cast mines where the tar sand is gouged out of the earth by huge diggers, and the extraction process has given rise to hundreds of square miles of toxic waste ponds – which are so extensive they can be seen from space, petrochemical works and miles of pipes.

Tar sands are one of the dirtiest forms of energy yet devised. Oil has to be washed out of the excavated sand using steam.  Heating the water to steam uses natural gas, currently about 1 billion cubic feet per day, much of which comes from fracking.  The steam needed uses more water than a city of 2 million people.  This is taken from the Athabasca river – as much as 16% of the flow in winter when levels are lowest, and the run off is held in toxic lakes which leach millions of litres of contaminated water into the surrounding area every day, causing terrible damage to wildlife. Tar (or bitumen) is carcinogenic and there has been an alarming increase in the incidence of cancer in the local population. The air quality in the mining area is poor and the whole process is extremely carbon-intensive, producing 3 times as much CO2 as conventional oil production. The oil companies have a legal obligation to reclaim the land and restore the forest once the tar has been extracted from an area, but only token efforts have been made so far. The government has also done little to clean up Alberta’s waterways, which are now heavily polluted.


Alberta’s tar sands are now producing 1.5 million barrels of oil per day (Saudi produces over 8m b/p/d), and has become the US’s main supplier of oil. According to oil industry experts there are 175 billion barrels of proven reserves in Alberta, which is 8 times the size of the reserves in Saudi Arabia, and there could be much more. By 2030 they hope to be producing at least 5m barrels a day, exporting more than Nigeria, Venezuela or Norway. The area is so promising from the oil industry’s point of view, that 100 billion dollars are to be invested in the next ten years.

A network of pipelines are planned across the USA to take the oil to refineries and consumers. Fortunately, in the wake of the oil spillage in the Gulf of Mexico, the plans have encountered massive opposition from numerous groups, and some states, led by California, have refused to allow the pipelines to cross their land. A proposed pipeline to the west coast of Canada, which would allow the oil to be shipped to China, has also met with stiff opposition.
Canada, alone among developed countries, is expecting to increase its emissions for the next 30 years and has now abandoned its Kyoto commitments. However, to put the tar sands into a global perspective, at the present time only 5% of Canada’s CO2 emissions come from tar sands, which is 0.1% of the world total. Coal-fired electricity is far more damaging, according to Dr David Keith of the University of Calgary, a carbon capture enthusiast.
The Albertan oil extractors are not indifferent to environmental concerns and are investing 2 billion Canadian dollars in carbon capture and sequestration, but this will do nothing to cut the bulk of the emissions, which come from combustion. It will do nothing to encourage the development of electric vehicles, and may only encourage tar sand exploitation elsewhere, particularly in Venezuela, Jordan and Madagascar.

Dirty Oil is available to buy for less than £5 if you visit on-line stores such as Amazon.