How to shrink your carbon footprint without buying a hybrid

“The excrement of the devil”

-Description of oil by Perez Alfonzo, one of the founders of OPEC after he became disillusioned with the OPEC organization.

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to avoid buying gasoline with ethanol in it. (If you’re not sure whether corn ethanol is a good thing or a bad thing — there have been a lot of conflicting reports in the press — then please read this.)

When I went looking for no-ethanol gas, I discovered that only 1 of the 6 gas stations in my community sold it. That one station is a Sinclair station. Sinclair stations, as you may remember, are the ones with the cute green dinosaur on the sign. It’s more than just the sign that makes the station in my town something of a throwback to an earlier age. When you drive over the hose next to the pumps, a friendly attendant comes out and pumps the gas and cleans your windshield for you. It’s a true service station, with a crew of well-trained mechanics who will resurface your brakes or replace your starter when it quits in the winter — all at a reasonable price. It’s also independently owned and operated.

Because I knew I was getting better gas mileage, reducing my carbon footprint considerably (or so I thought), not contributing to worldwide food shortages, and keeping most of my money local, I didn’t mind paying the 15-20 cents extra per gallon to fill up my tank with “no-eth.” Besides, George usually gave me the local weather forecast while he scrubbed the bugs off my windshield (he’s been talking a lot about how hot it is this year).

Sadly, I may have to sever my business relationship with George and his station, because I recently learned that Sinclair refineries make fuels from Canadian tar sands oil.

Tar sands (or oil sands) gasoline is to ethanol gasoline what Hannibal Lecter is to someone who steals candy from babies. It’s worse by an order of magnitude. Not only are the greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction, transport and refining several times greater than those from conventional oil, tar sands mining destroys huge swaths of boreal forest — forest that would otherwise soak up and store vast quantities of carbon dioxide. And then there are the millions of gallons of water used in the extraction, much of which ends up polluted.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

It hasn’t been widely reported, but the recent oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan consisted of tar sands oil. In fact, Enbridge, the company responsible for that spill, also owns a tar sands pipeline that runs the length of Wisconsin from Superior to the Illinois border.

I’ve mentioned Kwik Trip’s ties to Canadian tar sands in a previous post. Before I learned how bad corn ethanol was, I used to buy most of my fuel at Consumers Cooperative, which owns the other four stations in my community (3 Cenex stations and 1 Mobil station). I liked that I was supporting a cooperative and that I could turn in my receipts every August and get a few cents back on every dollar I’d spent throughout the year.

Dan Baun, the general manager of Consumers, told me that most of the gas sold in his three Cenex stores comes from the Cenex Oil Products Terminal in McFarland, Wis. Occasionally Cenex might not have enough of a certain grade of gas, he said, in which case they have to buy it from another wholesaler like Flint Hills Resources (Flint Hills is a known tar sands oil refiner). I haven’t yet been able to find out if the gasoline stored at the Cenex facility in McFarland is tar sands gas, but Cenex does own a refinery in Montana that accepts tar sands oil, according to EARTHWORKS, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization focusing on mineral extraction.

The gas for the Mobil station Consumers owns comes from — where else? — ExxonMobil. And according to Michael Bloch, who maintains the Web site Green Living Tips, ExxonMobil Canada Ltd. owns 30 percent of the Kearl oil sands project in Alberta, Canada. So that rules out the Mobil station in town, leaving me with no place I can buy gas locally if I want to avoid the stain — and climate devastation — wrought by tar sands oil.

I’ve started investigating gasoline retailers in the Madison area. So far I have learned that there are several stations that will not get my business. Bloch tells me that Shell, Marathon and Speedway all have ties to the Canadian tar sands operations.

As deposits of conventional oil around the world have become harder to find and access, Canada’s tar sands have grown more and more attractive to oil companies and investors. The oil companies would like us to believe that there is no difference in environmental impact between crude oil pumped out of the ground and oil extracted from the Canadian tar sands, but the difference is great.

Because they recognize the damage tar sands extraction is doing to the climate and to the Canadian wilderness, a growing number of companies including Walgreen’s, Whole Foods, Levi Strauss and Bed, Bath & Beyond recently pledged to end or cut back on their use of tar sands gas.

Besides trying to reduce our personal consumption of all oil, it might seem like we as individuals have little power to curtail the devastation that tar sands operations are causing, but in fact we have a lot of power. First, we can write to companies like those mentioned above to let them know we support their decision to stop using tar sands oil for their fleet vehicles. We can shop at their stores. We can urge other companies to follow their example.

We all must continue to reduce our use of oil by driving less and using more efficient vehicles. It’s worth noting, however, that far greater greenhouse gas reductions can be realized by switching from tar sands gas to conventional gas in our tanks than can be gotten by trading in our old vehicles for new hybrid-electrics. That’s because tar sands oil requires so much more fossil fuel energy to extract, transport and refine than conventional gasoline.

But our greatest power is political. We multiply our effectiveness when we demand of our leaders more mass transit options, fewer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and more funding for clean, renewable energy. Do the candidates running for state senate and assembly in your district this summer take a position on tar sands oil? How about the candidates for U.S. Congress? If not, you might suggest, ever so politely, that they study the matter and come up with a position if they hope to garner your vote this fall.



  1. It amazes and saddens me that so many companies (oil refiners, in this case) still have zero social conscience. Morals and ethics are apparently no deterrent when it comes to making another buck. Corn ethanol was a boondoggle from the start. (Barack Obama was tight with the Chicago ethanol lobby for many years.) Tar sand oil is apparently much worse. Poet Gary Snyder’s advice for being good to the planet is succinct: “Stay put.” I’m thinking a mule might make good transportation, and you don’t have to wax it.

    Good reporting, Rick. Thank you.

  2. Proving your point, John, some of the companies mentioned in my post seem to be backpedaling under pressure from the Alberta government. This just in: