Friday, June 4, 2010

Like Butter, Only Toxic

Everyone knows that butter is made from milk. But did you know that it requires the cream from 20 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of butter?

That pound of butter might seem extravagant, but at least the 19 unused pounds of milk have a purpose. We can drink it or turn it to milk powder to mix into other foods, right?

Yes, of course -- if anyone wants to pay for the milk. That's the problem the grass-fed butter-maker PastureLand Co-op has faced for the past five months. Given the economic recession and crash in organic milk prices, no processor wanted to buy their milk at a price PastureLand was willing to take.

Today, Simple Good and Tasty blogger Angelique Chao reported that PastureLand is on the verge of a contract, so their excellent butter will soon be back in production. I hope the new contract works out for them.

Now imagine... what if there wasn't a use for that milk? And even further, what if the milk was toxic? Wouldn't that be crazy? Who would want to consume a product made under those circumstances?

That's exactly how the Canadian oil we use here in Minnesota is made. Minnesota Public Radio's Stephanie Hemphill followed the supply line for Minnesota's oil from a gas station in St. Paul to the Flint Hills refinery in the southeastern suburbs, to the pipeline that runs about a thousand miles up to northeastern Alberta.

Like other Americans, I've been in denial or ignorance about this. Somehow I imagined they were drilling for oil in Canada, like they do in Texas. Not perfectly environmental, but better than some options... like drilling 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico, for instance -- right?

But no. They're not drilling up in Canada, they're strip mining. Swaths of Alberta are blessed with "oil sands," which are laced with a tacky substance called bitumen. It's oil, but it can only be extracted by mixing the soil with water and caustic soda to separate the useful part from the rest of the material.

Aerial shot of a large strip mine and tailings ponds surrounded by green tracts of forest
Syncrude's Mildred Lake mine site and plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

Before that process can even start, though, the bitumen needs to be dug up out of the ground. As Hemphill puts it, "To get at it, oil companies strip the land of trees and wetlands, then dig into the ground, hauling and extracting four tons of earth for each barrel of oil.... All this is happening in a place a lot like Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness."

Ironically, the mining company calls the virgin forests, soil and rocks that cover the oil sands "overburden," four tons of which are trashed for every barrel of oil. That's a ratio very similar to the 20 : 1 milk-to-butter ratio: One barrel of oil holds 42 gallons. One ton of soil is the equivalent of 240 liquid gallons (according to WolframAlpha), times four tons equals 960 gallons. 960 : 42 = 23 : 1, approximately.

In 2006, 1.25 million barrels of oil were produced in Canada every day (according to the Wikipedia), which means 5 million tons of wilderness were turned into "overburden." That's a trillion pounds of earth removed and trashed. Enough to fill the beds of 10 million pickup trucks. Every day.

Plus, for every barrel of oil created, 2 - 4.5 barrels of water are used in the extraction process (again, according to the Wikipedia), and all of that water becomes toxic slurry that has to be kept in retaining ponds.

And the final kick in the pants: Creating oil out of bitumen requires a third more energy than oil from conventional drilling.

This is where our need for oil and gas has led us.

1 comment:

David Steinlicht said...

That does it! I'm riding my bike to Mark's house tomorrow!