8 of the Most Toxic Energy Projects on the Planet

BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico served as a wake-up call for many of us who never before paid attention to the destructive energy projects happening all around the world. But while Deepwater Horizon may have attracted the lion's share of media attention this past Spring and Summer, there are a number of other toxic projects still going on. Below, we look at some of the worst.

Alberta Tar Sands

Alberta, Canada is home to the second biggest recoverable oil reserve in the world: the infamous Athabasca tar sands. But the massive deposit of heavy crude oil (aka bitumen) is under a staggering 54,000 square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs, which are slowly being destroyed by the open pit mining used to recover Alberta's oil. These open pit mining projects also deposit toxic mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and lead into the Athabasca river system, creating "masses of toxic soup." Suncor Energy, Syncrude Canada, Shell Canada, Marathon Oil, and Chevron are all pursuing projects in the Athabasca sands.

Three Gorges Dam

China's Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric dam in the Yangtze river, is world's largest electricity-generating plant. Completed in 2006, the dam has already produced 348.4 TWh of electricity since its inception. But the Dam has its drawbacks—construction displaced 1.2 million people (not the only Chinese water project to displace huge populations), increased the risk of landslides in the area, and made nearby Shanghai significantly more vulnerable to flooding.

Africa's Biofuel Land Grab

A new kind of colonialism is quietly taking over Africa as European companies snatch up land to grow biofuels. Major projects are located in countries including Mozambique (over 183,000 hectares allocated for jatropha), Benin (400,000 hectares of wetlands to be converted to oil palm crops), Sierra Leone (Swiss company Addax Bioenergy purchased 26,000 hectares for sugarcane), and Ghana (over 800,000 hectares purchased by international biofuel companies). They're a boon to European nations that want the clean fuel, but these projects also increase soil degradation, trigger the loss of arable land for food, increase food prices, and cause water depletion for local communities.

Sidoarjo Mud Flow

As the result of a now defunct energy project, the largest mud volcano in the world spews out 1 million cubic feet of mud every day, and is expected to continue expelling mud for the next 30 years. The volcano, located in East Java, Indonesia, was triggered by the blowout of a natural gas well drilled by PT Lapindo Brantas. The mud flow is partially controlled by levees, but flooding still affects local towns and highways.

Pascua Dam

A proposed dam project in Chilean Patagonia would flood over 15,000 acres of local wilderness and mar the landscape with 1,500 miles of power lines. The $4 billion HidroAysén project, which will consist of five giant dams that bump up Chile's power supply by 20%, could also cause downstream soil to lose fertility and destroy local plant and animal species.

Pavillion, Wyoming's Natural Gas Wells

This small town disaster is an example of what happens when gas drilling sites go unregulated. Natural gas drilling sites in the Pavillion, Wyoming, area have leeched oil compounds, methane and 2-butoxyethanol phosphate (a fire retardant and plasticizer) into local drinking wells. Residents have even been told to use extensive ventilation when showering so that they can avoid explosions from all the nasty chemicals in their water.

Greenland Gas Drilling

The Deepwater Horizon disaster hasn't stopped oil companies from pursuing other dangerous deepwater drilling projects. Case in point: Cairn Energy's recent discovery of gas off Greenland's west coast. In a statement, Cairn's CEO touted his "belief in the exploration potential" of the area—but neglected to mention that deepwater drilling in Arctic waters is high-risk because of the remoteness of the drilling sites (the Coast Guard won't be able to send in supplies on the quick like in the Gulf of Mexico, for example).

Appalachian Mountaintop Removal Mining

The Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States are often subject to mountaintop removal mining, a coal mining technique that slices off soil, wildlife, plants and anything else sitting on top of coal seams. Once the coal has been mined, the top of the mountain is restored. Among the nasty environmental impacts: the destruction of ecosystems, species loss, deforestation, and decreased aquatic biodiversity. Mountaintop removal mining also exposes local residents to airborne toxins.

[Photos by International Rivers (Three Gorges); Flickr/The Sierra Club (mountaintop removal)]

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  • Chelsea

    There are so many other solutions aside from corn ethanol, many of which do actually fix problems instead of creating more. The point is that we need to treat our world better. The best solutions are not compromises. The companies doing this to the environment don't give a damn and they won't truly compromise. They will continue to cut off mountain tops, cut down forests, and poison the plants and animals (including humans) until we take their business away from them. There are so many truly BRILLIANT people coming up with innovative solutions, genius solutions! They just can't compete with these huge energy companies. People who are able and have the means need to step up and take action. Governments need to step in, stop supporting these huge energy companies, and start supporting the people who actually can and will solve some of our energy problems with the right support. When people have to ventilate while showering to avoid explosions from their dirty disgusting water that is supposed to be cleaning them, it's gone to far. When our EXTREMELY limited supply of potable water is being contaminated it's gone to far. We are losing our water, our land, our livestock, our ability to grow food, our everything. Earth will be fine with our without us. But we are destroying everything she gives us to live on. That's all we've got, so something's got to change or we'll just become the next dinosaurs.

  • surewewill

    Ok, so there are bad things happening at these projects. Reading the entire article leaves you somewhat puzzled, how about ending on a positive but realistic note? Identifying the problem is the first part, what are the practical solutions? What would you recommend to provide the energy needed to run our appliances, heat our homes, power our factories, and run our vehicles? The modern society? Green does not solve all of them; corn based ethanol (stop the warming) requires corn (starve the 3d world countries) raises feedstock prices (higher food prices) and uses large amounts of water (big but unnoticed problem). Not against green but consider that one "solution" produced many problems. The whole energy thing is a big field. Perhaps the best solutions are not doable but reasonable compromises can be reached? Just my opinion.

  • Karen

    For the tar sands section, you referenced that the Athabasca River contains masses of toxic soup, but the article clearly calls the tailings ponds toxic soup, not the river. If you're going to try and reference, you should really do it properly. Although the Athabasca is polluted, it looks nothing like a mass of toxic soup, so that statement is completely wrong.

  • kumarpal jain

    Why are we not raising our voices against these projects? Is it because we start speaking when the disaster like BP oil spill happen? How did they get the environmental clearance?