Tar Sands Oil and the Relentless Capitalist Drive for Fossil Fuels

November 9, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Keystone XL would have vastly increased the flow of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, into the U.S. for refinement. Production and burning of this oil, which results in much more carbon pollution than normal oil, would be the equivalent of putting 37 million more cars on the road or adding 51 coal-fired power plants. And building this pipeline would have meant increased risk of oil spills all along its route, as well as further ramped-up production in the tar sands oil fields.


Production in the tar sands is immensely destructive to the environment. Oil in the tar sands is thick, filthy bitumen mixed with sand, clay and water. It’s dug out of the ground by strip mining or through injecting huge amounts of steam into the ground to heat the oil so it can be drawn out. Vast swaths of boreal forest, home to many species, as well as the land of indigenous people have been mown down to dig out this oil.

Patrik Marcel, an elder and scientist with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, described this: “They strip all the trees and earth to get at the oil. It’s a terrible thing—100 percent devastation.” The process uses up huge amounts of water and generates toxic waste products that leak into groundwater and formerly wilderness rivers and lakes. The indigenous people in the area have suffered killing cancers at increasing rates, a continuing genocide.

The fact this pipeline will not be built—for now—is a good thing. But the tar sands remain a huge pool of oil and profitability to Canadian and U.S. capital. Tar sands development is the largest energy and capital investment project in the world. The tar sands—and the U.S.’s own new reserves of oil and gas produced through fracking—are considered by the U.S. and Canadian rulers as a key form of “energy security,” which is a code term for what the imperialists see as a weapon of strategic economic and military power against global competitors and rivals.

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Oil and other fossil fuels remain foundational to the world capitalist economies, despite the fact that this reliance has brought us an unfolding climate catastrophe. And this isn’t, as Obama claims, simply because “we still need oil as we transition to a cleaner energy future.” It’s because control of oil reserves is tremendously profitable to imperialist capital. Oil is foundational to the functioning of the whole capitalist-imperialist system—6 of 10 largest U.S. corporations, and 8 of the largest 10 in the world, are auto and oil companies. Oil and gas remain key factors in the strategic rivalry among the imperialist powers. U.S. domination of oil supplies, fracking technology, etc. also fuel its military power and are used as a weapon to put pressure on Russia, Venezuela, Iran and other countries the U.S imperialists see as obstacles to their domination of the planet. And U.S. oil and natural gas production, its access to tar sands and shale oil, offshore reserves, etc., give the U.S. leverage in dealing with these countries and also other competitors, like China and the European Union.

So even though Keystone XL pipeline has been stopped for now, these big capitalist interests and the system as a whole are not walking away from the tar sands. At the same time, production of tar sands oil right now has become far less profitable, with the price of oil dropping to $50 a barrel. So certain tar sands projects as well as some offshore drilling projects have been put on hold. But this is likely temporary, awaiting changes in oil prices.

Christine Tezak, an energy market analysts with ClearView Energy Partners, said, “From a market perspective, the industry can find a different way to move that oil. How long it takes is just a result of oil prices. If prices go up, companies will get the oil out.” And Trans Canada, the developer of the Keystone XL Pipeline, has already announced they may decide to make another application to build a pipeline into the U.S.

Tar sands oil is already flowing into the U.S., including through a pipeline owned by Enbridge that erupted in a massive spill into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 that has never been fully cleaned up. The Keystone XL pipeline is only one of at least a dozen pipeline proposals being planned to increase the production of tar sands oil two- to threefold by 2030. Tar sands oil is also being increasingly transported by rail.

Under Obama, the U.S. has become world leader in oil and gas production, and the burning of these fossil fuels is the prime cause of the climate crisis. Also under Obama, the horribly destructive practice of fracking has been generalized. More pipelines have crisscrossed the land, coal and oil train traffic has massively expanded, and along with this, spills and train disasters have skyrocketed. The amount of oil shipped by rail in the U.S. increased 40-fold from 2008 to 2015. The number of U.S. states where there have been oil train accidents increased from eight in 2010 to 21 in 2014. In 2015, there have already been four high-profile oil train derailments, including one in West Virginia that resulted in an explosion that sent oil and burning oil cars into the Kanawha River. In Canada, since the oil train explosion in 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that incinerated 47 people, oil train traffic has increased by three times.

As long as capitalism rules this earth, there will be massive environmental destruction, poisoning of people’s land and waters, and heightening a climate emergency that is already leaping out of control.



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