Mordor rises in the north

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel                                      June 18, 2008

There is a nondescript section of I-94, just west of Johnson Creek, that passes over an underground river of black gold. Within months, a million barrels of crude oil daily will gush under the oblivious traffic. That’s almost 5% of America’s thirst.

Most of the oil will come from a tarry mix of sand and oil scattered over an area the size of Florida in Alberta, Canada. Originally called the tar sands, it’s rebranded as the more palatable oil sands.

While growing up in Canada, I watched the costly attempts to strip-mine the oil when technology was not up to the challenge and the low price of oil never justified it. Above $130 a barrel, after decades of ramping up the technology, the story has changed. Today, there is an oil rush around the town of Fort McMurray — dubbed Fort McMoney.

The oil sands contain the second-largest recoverable reserves on the planet, after those in Saudi Arabia. Production, which hit a million barrels daily in 2005, likely will triple to 3 million within seven years.

The refineries that feed Wisconsin — in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and in Superior — want to tap more of the elixir. They are anxious to substitute the oil sands of Canada for the oil reservoirs of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Mexico and other nations.

“The Midwest is at the end of what is becoming a longer and longer supply chain,” Scott Dean of BP told me. “The nearby sources of crude oil are declining. We all saw what happened when we had the terrible hurricane season in 2005. What we want to do is tie the Whiting refinery (in Gary, Ind.) to this very stable and fast supply of crude oil up in Alberta.”

We should dance in the streets. Milwaukee’s Granville Road petroleum terminal connects by a ribbon of steel to one of the largest sources of oil on the planet. There are no oceans or wars or American-hating governments that threaten its flow. It comes from America’s best friend.

As oil flows south, multimillion-dollar shovels for the mines roll north from Bucyrus’ and P&H Mining Equipment’s factories in Milwaukee.

There is a darker side, obscured by the rapid winds of change. This is one of the world’s dirtiest oil sources. Excavation and separation of the heavy bitumen in the sand is energy-intensive. It burns up valuable natural gas to heat the tar so the bitumen can be extracted, and more energy is expended in refining the bitumen into synthetic oil. A gallon of gas from the oil sands spews far more greenhouse gases than lighter oil from wells.

Refineries pull out toxins that, when tossed into the air, cause acid rain, smog and ground-level ozone — threats to all life in their path. Other toxins are flushed into giant ponds. The largest dam on Earth now forms one of those ponds. Birds land on it and die. This expanding land of lifeless pits, black ponds and gas flares easily could be mistaken for Mordor, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Black Land.

Plans are to do much of this dirty refining down here. The same toxins will end up in Midwestern air and the Great Lakes.

Going from light to heavy oil is like going from marijuana to crack. Though we may kick out the overseas tyrant in our tank, our national wealth continues to slip from our grasp. We are junkies that sell our possessions for a fix and are too strung out to admit ourselves to detox.

The wedding chapel is overflowing, and the families are full of anticipation. Is it a marriage with heaven or hell?








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