The Most Toxic Fossil Fuel: Coming To A Gas Pump Near You

Authors: Sasha Houston Brown, Green For All Academy Candidate

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Prior to traveling to Oakland for the fourth Green for All Academy, I spent several months working on a public education effort around the Alberta Tar Sands. When I talk about the tar sands in my community and others, I'm almost always met with questioning eyes and confused, skeptical nodding. Most people simply haven't heard of it.

The Alberta Tar Sands have been described by National Geographic as the most environmentally destructive project on the planet. It's also one of the best-kept secrets of the oil industry, hidden from public scrutiny. I'm hoping this blog will help increase awareness about the tar sands and its impact on all of us.

As the U.S. pushes further and further past the point of peak oil, industry has been driven to increasingly desperate and outrageous measures, whether it's drilling thousands of feet below the seabed, as we saw with the BP Gulf oil catastrophe, or squeezing sand for oil. In many ways, the tar sands are the Gulf oil disaster of the north.

Deep below Canada's boreal forest reside sand deposits rich in a black tarlike substance called bitumen, which can be mined and turned into a form of crude oil. This ecologically devastating process begins by clear cutting the boreal forest, one of the world's largest carbon sinks. Extracting tar sands oil is a hugely energy intensive process that requires vast amounts of water, natural gas, chemical agents, and heavy machinery and equipment. The result is the most toxic fossil fuel on the planet.

As unbelievably bad as all of this sounds, it only gets worse. The Alberta Tar Sands also represents one of the most critical environmental justice battles of our time. The development is directly poisoning Cree, Dine and Metee First Nations communities who are on the frontlines of tar sands extraction. Cancer rates are exponentially rising as tar sands development proceeds. As earth-based cultures, these communities, who rely on the water and land to continue their traditional ways of life, are under assault, yet fiercely resisting the desecration of their culture and the Earth.

A vast web of tar sands pipelines and refineries have been or are being built across the United States to process and disperse tar sands oil to unknowing customers. Canadian tar sands oil is already the number one source of foreign oil imported into the United States. Here in Minnesota, tar sands oil represents over 70% of our transportation fuel. Most of us fill up our gas tanks with tar sands oil without even knowing it. And fewer of us know that when you burn tar sands oil, it emits three times the carbon pollution compared to conventional oil.

For all of us working for a clean energy economy, it is critical for us to know about and take action on stopping the expansion of tar sands development. Our continued reliance on dirty and unjust sources of fuel is a huge barrier to building a clean energy future. Even so, it is a barrier that can and must be overcome.

All too often, victims of environmental racism and degradation end up fighting for their lives in isolation. It will take all of us joining together to change America's oil addiction. Please stand with Indigenous peoples to stop tar sands development, both in Canada and here in the U.S.

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Sasha Houston Brown is a member of the 4th class of Green for All Fellows, an Indigenous environmental advocate from the Santee Sioux Nation and Native Student Advisor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She is also a volunteer with the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

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