Tar Sands: The worst fuel on the planet?

A Reporter's Notebook: "Midwest oil mining a crude idea to many: Are we now scraping the bottom of the barrel?"

As Minnesota sanctions the transport and use of oil sands--the second largest reserve of usable crude in the world--it takes a prominent role in a transcontinental controversy.

Many argue our state is on the wrong side.

From dead birds to sick humans and fish, hardly anyone has anything positive to say about the new carbon intensive fuel polluting our air and water.

Howard Witt, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune pens the problem beautifully when he writes:

The controversies arise because this oil does not gush freely when tapped with a traditional well. Instead, it's bound up in subterranean sand, as black and dense as a hockey puck and less viscous than peanut butter. It must either be clawed out of surface mines or steamed from deep underground.

To access these lucrative oil sand deposits from strip mines requires churning up huge tracts of ancient boreal forest and polluting so much clean water with poisonous chemicals that the resulting waste ponds can be seen from outer space. So toxic are those waste ponds that last spring, a flock of 500 migratory ducks perished after landing in one of them.

If the birds can't handle it, why would humans be immune? Witt continues.

In one native Canadian village downriver from the oil sands mines, local doctors say they have noticed an alarming cluster of a rare form of bile duct cancer that's occurring at more than 400 times its usual frequency in the general population. Alberta provincial health officials say their studies do not substantiate any increased cancer risk, but they have initiated a comprehensive new scientific review to make sure. Their official response has not reassured local residents.

"When you see the fish sick, you know there's something wrong with the water," said John Rigney, a spokesman for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a community of about 1,200 people who draw their water and much of their food from the Athabasca River. "More than a quarter of the fish have lesions and some white fish are completely red. We have always eaten those fish. And now cancer has become very common here."
The Natural Resources Defense Council just published a peer reviewed report on the current and projected impact the oil sands industry is having on the environment. Jeff Wells, Ph.D. of the Boreal Songbird Initiative writes:

The public needs to understand the real and long-term ecological costs of this development and determine if this is acceptable.

Canada's Boreal forest is a globally important destination for birds as a nesting area and breeding habitat, especially for an array of wetland-dependent birds... It is estimated that half of America's migratory birds nest in the Boreal forest .... [T]he cumulative impact over the next 30-50 years could be as high as 166 million birds lost...