01/27/2012 11:55 EST | Updated 03/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Gateway to Radical Tar Sands Expansion

The hearings into Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline and tanker project kicked off with a bang when the federal government and powerful oil interests attacked those who want to voice concerns about the environmental impact of the project.

This was a diversion tactic to avoid talking about the danger the proposed pipeline poses for our climate, water, and land. And it worked, with these issues largely getting lost in the debate that ensued. But that was only temporary, and now it's time to get back to why Environmental Defence and thousands of other Canadians will continue to voice our objection to the project, despite scare tactics and smear campaigns.

The first issue we'll tackle is what would go into the pipeline. If built, Northern Gateway would send 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen to Kitimat each day. The proposal is part and parcel of plans to rapidly expand tar sands production over the next two decades.

In order to justify the "need" for the pipeline, Enbridge forecasts that tar sands production will more than triple by 2035. Canada already has an extensive pipeline network to export oil, and the existing pipelines can handle the current level of tar sands production plus moderate expansion. Gateway, therefore, would be needed to enable an aggressive ramping up in the tar sands.

The proposed pipeline would allow the expansion of tar sands production by at least 367,500 barrels per day, representing a 28 per cent increase over 2008 levels. This extra tar sands development would mean:

Water: An additional 200 million barrels of water used for tar sands processing each year, equivalent to the water used by a city of 250,000 people each year.

Land Destruction: Each year, an area of land equivalent to 2,148 football fields would be impacted by tar sands development, for a total of 460 square kilometers over the life of the project. According to Environment Canada, the threatened woodland caribou are already at risk of extirpation from the region as a result of industrial development. The added tar sands development that would result from the pipeline would take a toll on species at risk like caribou and whooping crane, as well as other birds and wildlife already coping with pressure from habitat destruction.

Toxic Tailings: An additional 25 million barrels of toxic tailings would be produced each year. The tailings are stored in vast lakes that are already leaking at a rate of 11 million litres each day. The tailings include dangerous chemicals like naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, mercury and other trace metals. To date, there is no safe disposal plan for the tailings that already exist, and there's evidence that toxic chemicals are polluting water downstream from tar sands.

Climate Change: The tar sands are already the fastest growing source of carbon pollution in Canada, and the pipeline would mean an extra 6.5 million tonnes of emissions each year, equivalent to putting 1.6 million more cars on the road. And, that's only counting the emissions within Canada from producing the additional tar sands to fill the pipeline. Yet 70 to 80 per cent of the life cycle emissions from oil consumption happen when it's burned, meaning that the total climate impact of Gateway is much greater than the emissions that are accounted for in Canada's carbon balance.

It should be noted, as well, that current tar sands development is happening without any clear limits on water and air pollution, habitat destruction, or greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the local environment is already in danger, people living downstream are concerned about the impact on their health, and Canada has failed to live up to its commitments to tackle climate change.

The choices we make today about the pace and scale of tar sands development will play a role in deciding the future of our atmosphere and planet. Given the urgent need to rapidly reduce fossil fuel use to prevent the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change, rapidly expanding fossil fuel production as the pipeline would entail is the wrong way to go.