Posts Tagged ‘Oil Sands’


Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot. Penguin Canada 2013.

I recently started reading Feral by respected British writer and Guardian journalist George Monbiot. His opening Introduction left me stunned. It is right on the money, but I was taken aback to encounter his comments in this book. Here’s an excerpt from his opening pages:

It is an extraordinary thing for a foreigner to witness: one of the world’s most sophisticated and beautiful nations being ransacked by barbarians. It is more extraordinary still to consider that these barbarians are not members of a foreign army, but of that nation’s own elected government. The world has watched in astonishment as your liberal, cultured, decent country has been transformed into a thuggish petro-state. The oil curse which has blighted so many weaker nations has now struck in a place which seemed to epitomise solidity and sense.

This is not to say that there were no warnings in Canada’s recent past. The nation has furnished the world with two of its most powerful environmental parables: one wholly bad, the other mostly good. The story of the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery reads like a biography of the two horsemen of ecological destruction: greed and denial. The basis on which the stocks were managed was the opposite of the Precautionary Principle: the Providential Principle. This means that if there’s even a one percent chance that our policy will not cause catastrophe, we’ll take it. Foreigners and seals were blamed for the depletion of the fish, while the obvious contribution of the Canadian fleet and the Canadian government was overlooked. The fisheries science was rigged and, when it still produced the wrong answers, disregarded or denounced. The government continued to sponsor bigger boats and new fish plants even as the stocks were crashing. A moratorium was imposed only after the fishery became commercially extinct: government and industry, after due consideration and debate, agreed that the non-existent fish should no longer be caught.

Even today, the best means of ensuring that stocks can recover and breed freely – declaring a large part (perhaps the majority) of the Grand Banks a permanent marine reserve in which no fishing takes place – has not happened. All over the world the evidence shows that such no-take zones greatly enhance the overall catch, even though less of the sea is available for fishing. But the Canadian government continues stoutly to defend the nation from the dark forces of science and reason.

The other great parable which still resonates with the rest of the world – the battle over Clayoquot Sound – began the same way: private companies were given the key to a magnificent ecosystem and told they could treat it as they wished. The forests would have followed the fishery to oblivion had it not been for a coalition of remarkable activists from the First Nations and beyond, who were prepared to lose their freedom – and possibly their lives – to prevent a great wound from being inflicted on the natural world. In 1994 they won, for a few years at least. Their courage in the face of police brutality and judicial repression inspired peaceful direct action movements all over the world.

So here are the two Canadas: one insatiable, blindly destructive, unmoved by beauty; the other brave, unselfish and far-sighted. There is no doubt about which of the two is now dominant. For Canada today is providing the world with a third parable: the remarkable, perhaps unprecedented story of a complex, diverse economy slipping down the development ladder towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man.

The tar sands poisoned the politics first of Alberta then of the entire nation. Their story recapitulates that of the Grand Banks. To accommodate rapacious greed, science has been both co-opted and ignored, the Providential Principle has been widely deployed, laws have been redrafted and public life corrupted. The government’s assault on behalf of the tar sands corporation on the common interests of all Canadians has licensed and empowered destructive tendencies throughout the nation.

Well. That’s not the end, there is more in this vein. Monbiot clearly sets out the state of Canada today. He does note: For those who appreciate natural beauty and understand ecosystem processes, it must feel like living in a country under enemy occupation. It must also be intensely embarrassing. Canada is becoming a pariah state, whose name now invokes images formerly associated with countries like Nigeria and Congo. Canadian friends joke that they stitch U.S. flags onto their rucksacks when they go abroad.

Indeed, I have felt more than embarrassment at the disassembling of my beautiful country. I have felt great anger and despair. About the only defense I could call upon is the fact that the current majority Conservative government was elected under our Kooky, anti-democratic election system by a minority of Canadians amongst a flurry of sick, vicious attack ads, robocalls and election fraud such as one associates with a third world country. It is impossible to explain, however, the know-nothing care-nothing attitude of Canadians across the country. Canadians pride themselves on being ‘polite’, but the manner in which citizens have sat back and turned a blind eye to the gutting of environmental legislation, to the targeting of charitable environmental organizations as ‘terrorists’, even the crushing of democratic processes, suggests Canadians are lazily complaisant, selfish and self-absorbed, unable to care about anything beyond the latest hockey scores, maybe their latest electronic gadget. We are entertaining ourselves to death with make-believe stories of hobbits and dragons and super heroes even as our own real world crumbles around us.

Oh Canada. Who stands on guard for thee now?


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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‚Äôs fresh water resources.


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)


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.


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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