Infographic of the Day: The Era of Tough Oil

The irony of the BP oil spill is that it might push us into an even more destructive practice: Tar-sands oil extraction.

Canada tar sands oil


When looking to causes for the Gulf oil spill, everyone has so far been focused on BP’s carelessness and the lax government regulators who cozy up to the industry in hopes of a cushy job.

But the BP spill points to a much larger underlying problem, as The New Yorker‘s Elizabeth Kolbert recently pointed out. We’re headed toward an era of “Tough Oil,” when fossil fuels will only grow more destructive because of how hard they are to mine:

But the real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper. Having
consumed most of the world’s readily accessible oil, we are now
compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it
in ever riskier and more damaging ways.

Deepwater drilling has disastrous downsides, as we’re seeing now. But what might be the larger calamity is so-called tar-sands oil mining–America’s largest source of oil.

Culled from Canada’s Tar Sands, the oil doesn’t sit in underground reservoirs, but rather soaks the land itself.

tar sands oil


To get it out, the land has to be stripped away, shipped off, and treated with chemicals and mind-boggling quantities of fresh water–all of which is heated by natural gas. That all means that tar-sands oil creates three times the carbon emissions as well-drawn oil. (Among the many companies involved in tar-sands mining is–you guessed it–BP.) And the practice is growing rapidly.

All of that is laid out in this urgently important (albeit polemical) animation created by La Moustache, a Canadian motion-graphics firm, for the documentary H2Oil.

[Vimeo 7408834]

Tar-sands oil may grow to from 19% of our current imports to 36% by 2030. Maybe the saddest part of the BP oil spill is that it’s already making tar-sands oil look relatively safe. But the destruction it causes in the atmosphere and hinterlands, while far harder to grasp, is every bit as gruesome and even farther reaching.

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.