Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Seriously, the Tar Sands and the Northern Gateway Pipeline are Bad News by Alex Snider

The boreal forest, also known as Taiga, covers 60% of Canada stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Southern Ontario to the Arctic (and majority of Russia and northern  Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and  Japan as well as most of Northern Europe) and is the world's largest terrestrial biome. More so than even the tropical rain forests, the Taiga is the earth's greatest carbon sink meaning that the forests sequester 22% of the carbon stored on the planet's surface. This means approximately 186 billion tonnes of carbon or 27 years worth of the emissions we burned in 2003 are held in the Boreal forests, wetlands and muskeg. Obviously, if carbon emissions are held in the Taiga, they are prevented from entering the atmosphere. Basically, Boreal forests are our best friends.

Canada's Boreal forests (and wetlands and muskegs) are also home to millions of mammals, birds (waterfowl, land and also migratory species), insects and fish, including countless species at risk brought back from the brink of extinction such as the buffalo and the whooping crane. There are also hundreds of Indigenous communities which still depend on the ecosystem for their livelihood, food and traditional lifestyle despite the 500 years of cultural genocide waged upon them by the government (the French, British and Canadian). There are also non-Aboriginal Canadians who depend on the land for their livelihood and who appreciate and understand the reciprocal nature of our relationship with the earth. Who understand that the earth is not there just to be exploited and ravaged for profit without any look to a sustainable future for our grandchildren, their grandchildren and so on.

Which brings me to the tar sands (they are not oil sands. As Garth Lenz says in the TED talk embedded below "Oil sands is a PR created term so that the oil companies wouldn't be trying to promote something that sounds like a sticky, tar-like substance that's the world's dirtiest oil."). The tar sands underlie 140,200 sq km (an area nearly the size of Florida), and sit in north-east Alberta right along the Saskatchewan border. They are the third largest store of oil in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, with 12% of the global reserves. In 2010 they produces 170.8 billion barrels of oil, exporting 1.4 million barrels a day to the States. This generated $3.7 billion in royalties for the Alberta Crown. The tar sands employ 140,000 people.

So what's the problem? Money and jobs = good, right? Not this time. There is a huge human and environmental cost to the tar sands.
"[T]ar sands oil production not only deforests land, disturbs peat and wetlands, and changes local hydrology, it also generates almost three times as much greenhouse gas per barrel as conventional oil production.12 Peat extraction in canada emitted 7.74 million tons of carbon between 1990 and 2000, mostly due to the decomposition of extracted peat after being removed from this secure carbon pool.13 large scale drainage and flooding of peat lands for mining or hydroelectric development also results in substantial emissions from this otherwise long-lived carbon pool."
There goes our carbon sink. On a small scale it's like cutting down a tree and burning a tire in it's place. And there goes our clean water. No wonder the Canada voted against the UN's Right to Drinking Water and Sanitation – our clean water isn't even for Canadian's but for oil companies to pollute (Harper and Aboriginal Affairs minister John Duncan also refuses to acknowledge water as being a right for Indigenous people in Canada).
Then there are the tailing ponds. Comprised of the waste byproduct of the tar extraction process, they are the largest toxic impoundments in the world and can be seen from space. They are built unlined and on the banks of the rivers. They are incredibly poisonous: "In 2009, data on the concentrations of toxic materials found in all oilsands tailings ponds were publically released for the first time. While more than 75 toxic substances were tracked, some specific aggregate volumes included: Arsenic: 31,305 kg, Benzene: 162,000 kg, Lead: 651,875 kg, Mercury: 747 kg, Sum of all PAH compounds: 218,456 kg. Between 2006 and 2009, total levels of mercury across all tailings ponds increased by 63%, lead by 29%, and arsenic by 28%. Asbestos topped the volume growth rates, with a 949% increase over the same four year period". And those fuckers seep into the groundwater.

The effects that the tar sands have already had on animal populations and human health are well documented:

In 2008, 1606 dead ducks were discovered in one of the tailing ponds. And another 230 migratory birds in 2010.

Also in 2008, a two-mouthed fish was caught in Lake Athabasca down stream of the tar sands.

Caribou populations have been devastated by the tar sands, to the point where now there is a secret government plan to poison wolves so as to prevent them from hunting caribou.

There has been increased rates of rare cancer among those living in Fort Chipewyan, a predominantly Aboriginal community downstream from the sands. And according to this article from the David Suzuki Institute there is a distinct threat of cancer from the tar sands.

The release of harmful substances into the atmosphere during extraction (greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide) causes respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, heart problems and bronchitis. While the other volatile organic compounds can cause brain damage and various cancers.

In addition to the health and environmental threats posed, the mines and the companies also present a host of other serious social problems: the exploitation of migrant workers, racism towards migrant workers and Indigenous people, increased sexual and domestic violence, housing crisis', spikes in drug and alcohol addiction and other issues springing from the isolation and demand for hyper-masculinity.

That's the short-story of the tar sands and their pros (money, jobs) and the extreme downside (absolutely everything else). Now, onto the pipeline, because super long post must be longer!
Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline is a proposed pipeline that will go from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat BC where 525,000 barrels of crude a day will be shipped ('cause nothing has ever gone wrong with oil tankers...) to a refinery in China. There is a second pipeline, which will transport condensate from Kitimat to somewhere near Edmonton for the purposes of thinning out the crude that will be piped to the coast. The pipes are to be 36" and 20" respectively and 1,177 km long. The pipes will be buried in trenches and although the website promises that the soil removed will be (mostly) stored and then replaced, their statement that they'll be "leaving the area close to the way it was before the pipeline was installed" is laughable.

Like with the tar sands, there is a lot of money generated and a lot of job creation but once again, is the environmental cost of disrupting 1,177 km of farmland, forest, Indigenous territory worth it? Is the (really high) risk of a spill worth it? A spill anywhere along the pipeline or BC coast would have a devastating effect on the health, livelihood, tourism, food production, animal species, economy and biodiversity of Canada.

There have been economic assessments that predict the pipeline will force Canadian oil prices through the roof (Enbridge predicts a $2-$3 increase per barrel); the Harper Government is threatening a trade war with the European Union if they label the tar sands as "dirty oil". Canada is basically the dinosaurs in Land Before Time, struggling in a fucking tarpit while the rest of the world moves onto a sustainable future.
This is just one part of the Harper Government's increasingly desperate moves in his propaganda war on behalf of big oil (and against the best interests of Canada). The Natural Resource minister labelled all opponents of the pipeline "radicals" and Harper jumped in suggesting that it's all foreigners and celebrities fuelling the opposition. Sure.

Brian Jean, the Conservative MP for Fort MacMurray-Athabasca, suggested that First Nations' Chiefs are pocketing bribe money from foreign groups to oppose the pipeline (yeah, because Aboriginal groups have never fought big fucking corporations and the government before over land and the environment. Give me a fucking break). He also suggested a legislation that would prevent foreign interests from being represented in Canadian environmental issues. You mean like CHINA'S INTERESTS? SMH.

The government has also drawn up a list of allies and adversaries in the fight for the pipeline. Allies include the National Energy Board (a supposedly neutral regulatory board which will be overseeing the hearings for the pipeline) government departments such as Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Natural Resources Canada and the Privy Council Office (from the PCO's website: "Led by the Clerk of the Privy Council, PCO helps the Government implement its vision and respond effectively and quickly to issues facing the government and the country". Yeah, sounds super non-partisan.) Oh, and also private energy companies and industry associations. Adversaries are environmentalists and Indigenous groups. That shit is beyond fucked up. 

Both Oliver and Harper also have complained about how these phantom foreign villains who keep buying off First Nations Chiefs (who would totes be all for the project otherwise) and investing all these *Dr Evil voice* millions of dollars into the radical environmentalists protestors (those fat-cat environmentalists!) are also holding up the National Energy Board hearings. Gah, democracy and due process, amirite Stevie?! Such a fucking drag when your trying to be supreme dictator of a startup petrocracie!

Aaaaaaand, Harper so far has refused to meet with Aboriginal groups and Chiefs even though the proposed pipeline goes through 50 First Nations communities. This isn't a big shocker given Harpers considerable disdain for the Aboriginal people within Canada but Canadians should be fucking angry about it. Disgraceful.

The good news is, even though Harper does have the final say he wouldn't be spinning his wheels so damn hard if he wasn't feeling threatened by all the amazing work already done by the Aboriginal groups and environmental activists. There have been larger projects taken out by the will of the people. Now is the time for action, for alliances and for spreading the word in Eastern Canada about the threat posed by this pipeline project. The economy and jobs are hugely important to non-Aboriginal Canadians and Indigenous people but so is a sustainable future, and it's not a zero sum game. We can have both but not if that includes an increasing reliance on the tar sands and this exploitation of non-renewable resources.

You can sign an online petition here.

You can email the Prime Minister:
You can email the Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver
And you can email your own MP. (It's super-easy to look up their email address here even if you're not sure who yours is. All you need is your postal code.)

A couple of videos:

A short film, BC's Huge Gamble by Corey Ogilvie:

"We visited to see the 'PROS and CONS' (shows chart on website) Benefits for British Columbians: 560 Long Term Employment. British Columbians must decide are you willing to gamble your: Marine Ecosystem, Great Bear Rain Forest, 1000+ rivers and streams, billions in tourism, commercial fisheries, coastal communities for 560 full-time jobs?" 

A TED talks on the environmental and human cost of the tarsands:

"The world does not need anymore tar mines. The world does not need anymore pipeline to wed our addiction to fossil fuels and the world certainly doesn't need the world's largest toxic impoundments to grow and multiply and further threat the downstream communities... What we need is we all need to act to make sure that Canada respects the massive amounts of fresh water that we hold in this country. We need to insure that these wetlands that are the best and most critical defence against global warming are protected and we're not releasing that carbon bomb into the atmosphere and we need to all gather together and say no to the tar sands."

Some resources:

Haida Nation
Oil Sands and Truth
Tar Sands Watch
Indigenous Environmental Network
Sierra Club
Pacific Wild
The Pembina Institute
Defenders of the Land
Gitxaala Nation

(The first image was taken by my amazingly talented friend-for-life, Kevin at Kevin Kimber Photography, the rest are from Wikipedia, National Geographic and

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