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stupidtothelast

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.

stephen

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