Oilsands development has clear, long-term consequences
Posted by mhudema on June 18, 2008
Last week I had an opportunity to interview Matt Price, author of the ominously titled report Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth. As I was speaking to him, I was thinking of a film with an equally ominous title — There Will Be Blood — which I had watched the night before.
The film turned out to be a good preparation for the interview.
Price, in town last week to speak at a public meeting about the effects of the oilsands on Saskatchewan, is convincing in his defence of his bold title. Alberta’s tar sands are massive, the size of the state of Florida. They are being steadily converted into a stream of pollutants, such as acid rain, which mostly ends up in Saskatchewan, and greenhouse gases, distributed worldwide. Exploiting Alberta’s tar sands produces higher greenhouse-gas emissions than 145 countries.
The toxic tailings ponds from current oilsands projects, which no one knows what to do with, now total 50 square kilometres in size. Syncrude’s toxic sludge pond — just one of them — is so big it is held back by the world’s largest dam. These toxic ponds will grow to 220 square kilometres in the not too distant future, one result of the largest capital project in the world.
(For a fuller description of the effects of the tar sands read Price’s report at http://www.environmentaldefence.ca/reports/tarsands.htm.)
Despite cautions from figures like former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and the current mayor of Fort McMurray, a city reeling from the pace of oilsands growth, it appears the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will not cease until the oil they contain is fully tapped. The consequences for the world and for our part of it are clear. Price shows a satellite image of the massive and currently forested oilsands, and then another with the network of proposed infrastructure superimposed. It is clear what is going to happen: A forest the size of Florida will be replaced by what Lougheed describes as a “moonscape.”
The drama of Daniel Plainview, the oil baron played with chilling force by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film, is as old as human history. His single-minded focus on making as much money as possible brings on his own spiritual destruction. The modern oil barons may be more refined and pleasant than Plainview, but the same morality play is being staged today in Alberta with the expansion of its tar sands developments.
And this unholy story of greed is soon coming to Saskatchewan’s North, where our oilsands are being readied for exploitation. The question “Should we start this development at all?” is not even being considered. No decision-makers seem ready to ask the question, “Is it really worth it?”
For its part, Parliament’s Natural Resources Committee recently stated: “A business as usual approach to the development of the oilsands is not sustainable. The time has come to begin the transition towards a clean energy future.”
Instead of oilsands expansion, we should be investing massively in benign alternatives. Instead of risking the planet by producing dirty oil, we could invest in efficient rail transport, dramatically improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles, and developing alternative fuels.
If we want to avoid projects like the tar sands, a new approach to designing communities and supplying materials is needed, one that reduces energy use overall. Ultimately, we will need to produce food and manufactured goods closer to where they are used and to design cities so that people can walk or take public transport.
Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands recommends an aggressive approach to cleaning up existing oilsands projects. Measures include:
- passing “hard caps” on tar sands emissions, plus carbon capture and storage paid for by a carbon tax;
- storing tailings in dry rather than wet form;
- creating new protected areas to preserve ecosytems;
- employing cleaner technologies to improve the performance of refineries and oil upgraders; and
- aggressive enforcement of science-based pollution limits by scientists independent of industry.
If such measures are not responsibly followed, the tar sands should be shut down.