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Posts Tagged ‘Tar Sands’

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March 22nd is UN World Water Day (webpage linked here). On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly agreed to a resolution declaring the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. The Harper government once again embarrassed Canadians on the world stage, abstaining from the vote even though there are many communities across Canada, including First Nations, which do not have access to clean, safe water.

It’s undeniably true that Canadians tend to take fresh water for granted and often fail to take the necessary steps to protect this invaluable gift. A perfect example of this national failure is ongoing. In the 2008 Speech from the Throne, Harper committed to introducing legislation to ban all bulk water transfers or exports from Canadian freshwater basins. The Harper government is currently reneging on this commitment, having voted down Bill C-267 and replaced it with a much-watered down version (pun intended), Bill C-383, the Transboundary Waters Protection Act, which if passed will only protect 10% of Canada’s fresh water resources.

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Alberta Bitumen Project: Before. Photo: Garth Lenz

It is easy to find examples of water abuse in Canada, but perhaps no other is more blatant than the poisoning of water in the Alberta bitumen project. The largest industrial undertaking on the planet is variously referred to as the Tar Sands or the Oil Sands, depending on your perspective. If you are a pragmatist and view continued economic growth as both vital and inevitable, you’re an oil-sander. If you are a superpragmatist and view the continued existence of a livable planet as vital but not necessarily inevitable, you’re a tar-sander.

The tar sands consume between 2.5 and 4 barrels of water per barrel of oil. About 90 percent of the water used in the tar sands is discharged into a vast system of toxic tailings ponds. [2] These ponds, which span over 50 kilometers and can be seen from space, are built right on the banks of the Athabasca River and are often held in place only with earthen dykes. Birds that land on the ponds die. (From Waterdefense.org)

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Alberta Bitumen Project: After Photo: Garth Lenz

Unlined toxic tailings ponds range in size up to 9000 acres. They contain enough toxin to cover the surface of Lake Erie a foot deep. New projects are being added every year and production is expected to increase from 1.31 million barrels of oil per day in 2008 to 3 million barrels per day in 2018. Three million barrels of oil per day would mean that between 7 and 12 million barrels of water will be withdrawn from the Athabasca ecosystem and poisoned every day.

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Photo: Garth Lenz

The tar sands are upstream from the Peace-Athabasca delta, a globally significant wetland, central to a major migratory bird flyway. The waters feeding the delta are being drawn down and the toxic burden of the waters is being increased daily. Already, the cancer rate of Fort Chipewyan residents, living downstream from the tar sands, is 10 times the national average and includes rarely seen forms.

A compromise position would be to slow tar sands development until better technological processes that result in less damage to the environment can be developed. After all, the resource is in the ground and it isn’t going anywhere. However, with billions of dollars of support from the Harper government, it’s full steam ahead and damn the consequences.

The tar sands photos used here are from Garth Lenz’s TED Talk, The True Cost of Oil.

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One of the route markers on the road to winter is the first thin coat of ice to cover ponds and puddles. When I went out to feed the horses on Saturday morning, there it was. The surface of the pond was sealed by a delicate film. The virgin icecoat was fragile and thin, but nevertheless added emphasis to the “other world”-liness of all things that live in water. The ice was transparent and I could still see schools of little fish swimming near the shore, but now they looked protected and safe, sealed off from our outer world of air and earth.

The smaller puddles that dot the field had air pockets trapped beneath their surfaces. It’s impossible to resist poking some of them with a toe to see the ice shatter like glass. The river to the north of the house is scarcely touched by the frost. It takes more than a few cool nights to cover its surface. Even though the water isn’t very deep, it’s persistent movement keeps the ice at bay until the temperature dips well below freezing.

The weekend was sunny and bright, but a cold wind was blowing. I was content to spend time sitting in the sun, enjoying the outdoors via my view out the window. On weekends, I like to browse through the Saturday Globe & Mail, preferably while sipping a cup of hot coffee. On Sunday, I also looked up the podcast of Jian Ghomeshi’s interview from November 25th, which I wasn’t able to catch at the time. Jian had both Dr. David Suzuki, Canada’s voice for conservation and change, and Ex-Almost-President Al Gore on the show. You can listen to the podcast of the interview here.

I was interested to learn that David Suzuki was strongly influenced by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. I read it as a newbie gardener and was never tempted to spray poisons on my plants. Thank goodness Ontario finally banned the use of cosmetic pesticides. Better late than never. Al Gore tread cautiously through the minefield of commenting on another nation’s policies, but did note that “I have been surprised in recent years at the appearance that some in the government were willing to turn their backs on environmental agreements like the Kyoto Protocol.” Yeah. Me too. And: “I understand there’s a lot of money to be made in the tarsands,” but they are “the single most dangerous and polluting energy source on the planet.” He observed that gasoline made from the tarsands gives a Toyota Prius the carbon footprint of a Hummer. While Suzuki was impatient with conferences such as the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Change summit, Gore remained hopeful that a treaty would be forthcoming in the next year.

In light of the upcoming summit, the Globe and Mail featured a number of interesting articles related to climate change. In Lowering the Doom, John Allemang discusses how to motivate the public to support change. The People’s Republic of Green, by Mark MacKinnon, looks at steps that China is taking towards a more sustainable energy future. The city of Baoding has gone from being a major polluter to being the world’s first carbon-positive (emission reductions created by the technologies produced here exceed the city’s own carbon emissions) city in the world in just 6 years.

World Wildlife Fund full-page feature, G&M, Sat. Dec 5, 2009

In A changing planet – by land, sea and air, the damage caused by global warming is examined. In Everybody talks about the climate, but … Karim Bardeesy reviews three books that examine climate change solutions and the obstacles to their implementation.

There will probably always be climate change deniers. After all, 150 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there are still people who are unable or unwilling to grasp the concept of evolution. The science of climate change and mankind’s ability to impact carbon-dioxide levels have been understood since Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius examined the subject in 1895. All that remains uncertain are the exact details. In fact, climate change is happening faster than predicted. Perhaps the main benefit of the Copenhagen summit will be to unite more people in supporting action.

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The North American boreal forest stretches from Alaska across 6,000 kilometers to Newfoundland. It is the largest wilderness left in North America and is part of an ecosystem that encircles the northern hemisphere. Vast amounts of carbon are locked up in the boreal forest. Their biomass is so huge that in the northern spring, when their growth is at its peak, worldwide levels of carbon dioxide fall and the worldwide levels of oxygen rise. Boreal forests are just as important to the global ecosystem as tropical forests. It is estimated that boreal forests store almost twice as much carbon as tropical forests and three times as much as temperate forests. The carbon storage of Canada’s boreal forest is estimated to be equal to nearly 27 years of the world’s carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. Click here to read more on global warming and Canada’s boreal forest.

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In addition, the boreal forest acts as North America’s bird nursery. Over 300 of North  America’s 325 species regularly breed in the boreal forest region. Considering the overwhelming threats already faced by songbirds, preserving the boreal forest may be absolutely vital to their very survival. Many groups are working to preserve the boreal forest including the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

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More and more, development and resource extraction are encroaching upon this ecosystem. About two hectares of Canada’s boreal forest are clearcut every minute. Further, projects such as Alberta’s Tar Sands contribute hugely to global warming. New research by Global Forest Watch Canada shows that the extent of greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations is much worse than reported due to the failure of oil companies and governments to account for emissions from forest destruction. Christy Ferguson, Greenpeace climate and energy coordinator, says “Governments and companies are working hard to downplay the impacts of tar sands operations, but it turns out that they don’t even know the full extent of the problem.” Denial is not a climate strategy. Read more here.

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An easy way that you can help to protect the boreal forest is this: simply choose forest-friendly products when you go shopping. There is now a good range of green disposable paper products available just about everywhere. You can get facial tissues, bathroom tissue, and paper towels made from 100% recycled paper. Buying these products saves a tree and also supports the recycling industry. Sponge pockets and quicker-picker-uppers, despite what the commercials would have you believe, are not magic wands. They are just paper towels that support the destruction of forests. Look for recycled-fibre printer paper too.

Thursday, October 15th, is Blog Action Day on Climate Change. Connect to the movement at blogactionday.org. October 24th is International Day of Climate Action. Come out and participate! You can find an event near you at www.350.org.

Thanks to Birdgirl of The Marvelous in Nature for the great photos of the boreal forest of northern Ontario.

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Stupid to the Last Drop by William Marsden. Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2007.

I assume that when author William Marsden came up with the title for his book, he thought that “Greedy, Self-interested, Irresponsible, Exploitive, Suicidal, Environmentally-devastating and Just Plain Crazy to the Last Drop” would be a bit too long, although all those adjectives could surely be applied to Tar Sands projects. On the other hand, his subtitle of How Alberta is bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care) does run on impressively. It’s hard to argue with him.

It’s impossible to hear anything about global warming, environmental disasters or the end of cheap oil without also hearing about Alberta’s tar sands. I decided it was time I learned a bit more about the topic, and Marsden’s book offers a good, readable introduction. He looks at some of the history to the development, how oil is extracted, and provides some of the relevant facts and figures. His first-person interviews of people impacted by the tar sands in various ways, from employees and managers out at Fort McMurray to First Nations residents in Fort Chipewyan, lends the book a human face.

The strangest thing about the tar sands is the way in which the people of Alberta have been complicit in their own sell-out. If you have a supply of a product that everyone in the world wants, it pretty much follows that you can name your price. And when extracting that product is going to devastate the very land you live in, pretty much forever and ever, you better be building up one hell of a reserve for the future. Instead of that, Albertans have sat by while their government sold off their one-time resource to the lowest bidder.

Compare Alberta’s situation to that of Norway. Alberta’s Heritage Fund, begun in 1976, contained only $15.4 billion 30 years later in 2006. Norway didn’t begin receiving oil revenue until 1996, and just ten years later Norway’s fund contained nearly $306 billion. In addition to charging much higher royalties than Alberta does, Norway ensures that a state-owned company controls more than 50 percent of North Sea oil production. And that doesn’t even address the government subsidies and tax breaks Albertans happily dish out to oil companies. For this boondoggle, Albertans rewarded the Ralph Klein government by re-electing them several times. Incredible!

Consider the spectacle of citizens of this oil-rich province having to stage demonstrations just to get adequate health care. Last weekend, the Globe and Mail reported that hundreds of Albertans held just such a demonstration in front of Premier Ed Stelmach’s riding office in Fort Saskatchewan to protest the shortfalls and poor management of Alberta’s health-care system.

The aspect of the tar sands projects that I found most disturbing relates to the devastation of the watershed. The prairies are naturally dry. Alberta’s rivers are fed by a network of streams that have their source in the snowpacks and glaciers of the Rocky Mountains. With climate change, glaciers are receding and there is evidence that suggests precipitation will decline in the future. Somehow, Albertans have been convinced that oil is the most valuable of liquids. Of course, that’s silly. Water is the most valuable of liquids, regardless of how many dollars a barrel of oil may fetch. You can live without oil. You can’t live without water. Alberta has about 70% of the irrigated farmland in Canada. Yet the province has failed to protect wetlands and water supplies. The flow of the South Saskatchewan River has been reduced by 84% since the early 1900s.

The extraction of oil from the Tar Sands requires huge amounts of water, from 2 to 6 barrels for every barrel of oil produced. The water is mostly drawn from the Athabaska River. The water cannot be returned to the river, however, because the mining process poisons the water. Instead, huge tailing lakes of contaminated waste water are held behind one of the worlds’ largest dam systems, second only to China’s Three Gorges project. The effects of the resulting contamination, as water leaks into the Athabaska watershed, isn’t well understood because the government deals with problems in a “shoot-the-messenger” way, with severe cut-backs to the Environmental department, thus limiting investigation of problems. And that doesn’t even get into the problem of private wells poisoned by coal bed methane (CBM) drilling.

The prevailing Albertan view has reached other Canadians in the form of an Imperial Oil exectuive’s son and climate-change denier, Stephen Harper. I can’t stand the Conservative Party’s attack ad campaign and enjoyed this parody, produced by Environmental Defense. Watch it here.

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