Middle Eastern oil refineries have nothing on the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. According to a new documentary, one of the world's most polluting industrial projects lies just north of the American border. Not only do Americans not know it, but our insatiable appetite for oil is also keeping oil extractors in business.

Dirty Oil, which premiered Oct. 11 at the 17th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, documents the oil extraction process in the tar sands of Northern Alberta. Narrated by Canadian actress Neve Campbell (of Scream and Party of Five fame), the film mines the contentious relationship between government, oil industry and environmental interests. The process of gleaning oil from tar sands, environmentalists say, emits three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil and takes the energy equivalent of two barrels of oil to produce three. It uses four times as much water and heat.

Directed by Academy Award-nominated director Leslie Iwerks – who brought movies like Downstream, The Recycled Life and The Pixar Story to film – the documentary feature follows the oil pipelines from Canada to American refineries in the Midwest, which at times dump toxic waste into the Great Lakes. Dirty Oil is the first original feature film from Babelgum, a site offering mobile videos, which focuses on film, art and comedy.

The story of Canada’s oil extraction industry is not new. The film lambasts Bush administration policies that were governed by oil interests, and it also delves into the policies of the Obama White House. As recently as August 2009, the Obama administration approved a new oil pipeline between Canada and the United States. Government officials said construction of the Alberta Clipper Pipeline sent a “positive economic signal,” but others weren’t so sure.

“The global impact of tar sands production on climate change will probably be several magnitudes greater than has been estimated,” wrote Andrew Nikiforuk in a report published by Greenpeace in September 2009. Canada currently is one of the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases and a global defender of dirty fuels, the report said. “The cannibalization of Canada’s natural gas supplies by the tar sands is unsustainable,” Nikiforuk wrote.  

“Digging up the tar sands is a dirty, wasteful business,” Josh Harkinson wrote in “Tar Wars,” which appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of Mother Jones. “Converting tar sand into gasoline emits up to three times the greenhouse gases as drilling and refining conventional oil.”

Despite the bleak picture, a glimmer of positive news recently surfaced. According to a report in The New York Times, energy giant EnCana, based in Alberta, said it is developing a bitumen extraction process to reduce natural gas consumption. The process would also increase well productivity, the company said. We’re staying tuned.


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