It’s safe to say Montanans were stunned last week by the Schweitzer administration’s announcement that it intended to promote a whole series of tar sands refineries across Montana’s Hi-Line. In the meantime, the same Schweitzer administration is fighting Wyoming over dumping salty discharge from coalbed methane into Montana’s waters and trying to hold off coal mine development in Canada because it threatens to pollute the Flathead drainage. Perhaps there is some logic at work here, but if so, it’s mighty amorphous. What is clear, however, is the obvious hypocrisy—and inherent policy and legal risk—of telling others they can’t develop their polluting resources while we charge full speed ahead on developing ours.
For those who have no idea of what a tar sands refinery is—or how much pollution it puts out to produce a barrel of oil—a quick Google search of “tar sands refineries + pollution” will be an eye-opener. Tar sands are basically a form of thick oils bound up in various forms of underground strata. Alberta, our neighboring Canadian province, has an estimated 300 billion barrels of oil that could possibly be extracted from its tar sands. But there are big problems with both the extraction and refining of these reserves that make them marginally profitable and highly polluting.
To start with, merely extracting the raw material is problematic. Consider that strip mining the tar-laden sands is currently the method of choice. Now consider that in Alberta, the tar sands fields cover an area approximately the size of Florida—yes, the whole state—much of which is currently forested. Off go the trees, streams and groundwater are diverted, and in come the giant shovels and trucks. As a recent article in Energy and Environment notes, such methods “leave behind a barren moonscape.” Sounds bad, but the damage is just beginning.
The sands are then hauled off to a facility that mixes them with clean water and processes them to obtain bitumen, a form of crude oil. Massive quantities of energy, derived from huge amounts of natural gas, are required for every step of the process. The National Energy Board of Canada estimates that the entire process consumes 500,000 cubic feet of natural gas for every barrel of bitumen produced. And that’s just for the strip-mining method. For in situ recovery, where natural-gas heated steam is pumped into the sands to release the tar, the gas use is a million cubic feet per barrel of bitumen.
The result is the release of greenhouse gases at what has been estimated at 10-15 times the amounts generated by conventional oil recovery and processing, plus a host of other pollutants. As an example, Alberta’s Syncrude plant, which has been mining and processing tar sands since 1978, produces a whopping 245 metric tons of sulfur dioxide stack emissions per day.
The process also uses enormous amounts of fresh, clean water. Industry officials estimate it takes two barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca River to produce one barrel of oil. But environmentalists say that number is more like four to six barrels of water per barrel of oil. In any event, it doesn’t take a math genius to get the idea that energy recovery from tar sands is input heavy, output light, and tremendously polluting.
The problem with all that pollution is that Canada, unlike the United States, signed the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to reduce global warming emissions. The tar sands—and especially plans to ramp up production—are making it virtually impossible for Canada to keep its commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. Thus, the Schweitzer team offers Montana, just across the border, where we have no such constraints.
Of course they didn’t say it quite like that. Instead, administration officials tossed in that we’d have to “do it right.” A good question to ask is what, exactly, does this administration consider “doing it right?”
Gov. Schweitzer has lauded “clean coal” development, but turned around and endorsed plans for a decidedly unclean coal burning power plant in Great Falls recently.
Or how about the Swiss-owned Holcim cement plant in Trident, which continues to use metals-laden slag from the defunct East Helena ASARCO lead smelter and wants to fire its kiln by burning used tires. I was in the room when newly elected Gov. Schweitzer told Gallatin Valley citizens: “We’re on this like stink on a skunk.” His words literally brought tears to the eyes of those folks who, for more than a decade, had run into the stone wall of Republican governors who cared little for what got burned, what got emitted, or who had to breathe it. The New Day, they believed, had dawned.
But now the Department of Environmental Quality has issued an Environmental Impact Statement that says burning the tires at the very headwaters of the Missouri River is okay. Oh, and the slag, too. The stink is there—just like on a skunk—but the promise to protect the environment has vanished into the exigencies of corporate demands—just like in the Bad Old Days.
Given the pollution caused by tar sands refining, “doing it right” is probably just another unattainable promise—especially if you toss in the pollution breaks for refineries in the federal Energy Act of 2005. If this disastrous vision comes to be, Montana’s Hi-Line will suddenly have a pollution profile you can see from space—to say nothing of where all that fresh process water is going to come from.
There’s a good chance the refineries won’t happen, but regardless of future development, stumping for such polluting enterprises seriously undercuts our position on blocking external sources from polluting Montana’s waters and air. After all, if we are willing to send that much pollution from refineries, slag and burning tires cross-border, downstream and downwind, why can’t they? Sad to say, policy hypocrisy is still with us—and casting a long, dark shadow on Montana’s new day.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.