- Turning tar sands into oil and burning it as fuel produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.
- To prevent an average global temperature increase of more than two degrees Celsius, triggering potentially catastrophic climate change, cumulative carbon emissions must be kept below one trillion metric tons.
- The earth's atmosphere is already more than halfway to the trillion-metric-ton target; expanding production of even more tar sands would accelerate emissions.
- If built, the Keystone XL pipeline will be a spigot that speeds tar sands production, pushing the planet toward its emissions limit.
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Red lights are flashing, but Ben Johnson pays them no mind. The long, lean, weathered engineer rests against a counter lined with computer monitors, describing life in the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada. His task is to take a mud made of ore and water and “liberate the bitumen,” a tarlike oil that can be refined into conventional crude oil. He and two colleagues man a monitoring station that sits near the base of a cone-shaped structure the size of a three-story building. Mud and hot water flow into the middle of the inverted funnel. Bitumen rises to the top and spills over onto surrounding grates.
One time in 2012 bitumen bubbled up so fast that it cascaded down the sides of the cone and flooded the building shin high. To keep this kind of thing from happening again, sensors track temperatures, pressures and other parameters, and if something is amiss, a warning goes off. This happens so often—“1,000 alarms a day,” Johnson says—that the engineers have taken to keeping the sound turned off. “It's not going ‘bing, bing, bing,'” he says, “because that would drive us crazy.”
This article was originally published with the title Greenhouse Goo.