In Conversation: Thoughts on the Tar Sands
Posted by mhudema on July 31, 2008
Speaking out In conversation with … Mike Hudema
How does someone get from Crescent Heights High School to a stage in Southern California challenging General Motors CEO to build the world’s most fuel efficient car?
For Medicine Hat native Mike Hudema, a spokesman with Greenpeace Alberta, the road included an exchange to India and years at the University of Alberta, where he was student body president and earned education and law degrees.
Along the way he also was charged with eating his ballot in the 2000 federal election, ran for the provincial New Democrats the following year, worked with numerous environmental and political action causes, and wrote a book titled An Action a Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away.
News reporter Collin Gallant spoke by phone with Hudema at the Edmonton Greenpeace offices where he works on the group’s Stop the Tar Sands campaign.
Medicine Hat News: How did you get involved in politics?
Mike Humeda: The big thing for me was that I had a chance to go on an exchange to a state in southern India. It’s run on a completely different system than the rest of India. They’ve rejected the IMF World Bank program, and run on a very participatory democratic model. I witnessed a budget meeting that involved 20,000 people getting together to debate the village budget for the next year. For me, witnessing that process, and how fundamentally different it is from the conception of democracy that we have here, really woke me up to a lot of different things. We have choices in the systems of democracy that we use. What we do in building communities or the environment, we have a choice.
When I came back I didn’t like a lot of the choices that the Canadian and Albertan governments were making, they were destructive in a lot of ways. I wanted to get involved in changing that.
News: Talking about different forms of how governments are run; Alberta must be a tough nut to crack. There seems to be very entrenched power and entrenched opinion. Is that accurate, and is it frustrating at all?
Hudema: In a lot of ways Alberta is the belly of the beast as far as environmental issues in Canada. Alberta is the most destructive province in the country when it comes to the environment… That said, it’s a really good chance. If you look at Albertans, in general, one of their strong core values is the environment. It comes up time and time again in opinion polls. The environment is the No. 2 issue for people in Alberta. The No. 4 issue is climate change. There is a real willingness and awareness when it comes to environmental issues, but there’s a real disconnect between those core values and what’s represented in the political arena. People don’t necessarily know how to get engaged in making the changes they want to see.
Part of my job is showing people that there are a lot of tools that they have. Even in political climate like Alberta — where you’ve had a government that’s been in power for 40 years — and on an issue that I work on, the tar sands — where you have every major oil company involved in this project — when the truth is on your side, it requires a moral stance. It’s important that we stand up, say “No,” and offer an alternate version of how we can be doing things. That’s what’s been carrying me.
News: When you talk about the alternative vision for the tar sands, what’s that vision?
Hudema: There are a lot of things that we need to recognize when we’re talking about the tar sands.
A lot of this energy that’s being produced is not for Canadian consumption. It’s not being produced to heat our homes or going into our energy mix. It’s mostly going right across the border to become transportation fuel.
The work I did in California (Editor’s Note: Hudema worked in 2005 as a director with Global Exchange, an environmental advocacy group), that work was all to do with transportation and the tremendous advances we’ve had that would allow us to more than quadruple the fuel economy of our vehicles over three years, if the political will was there to do that.
I think within the United States you’re starting to see that political will starting to shift quite a bit.
Downstream there’s a lot of room for movement…
The jobs in the tar sands, are they sustainable jobs? The answer is no.
Two out of every three jobs in the tar sands is construction labour. You’re not building a sustainable workforce. Once the construction phase is complete, two out of every three workers is going to be out of a job.
What we could be building instead is a safe, clean, renewable energy infrastructure.
Aberta is the perfect place to do it. We have the sunniest province in Canada, huge wind potential, especially in southern Alberta, geo-thermal potential throughout the province.
We have the natural resources to do it and the financial resources to do it. What’s lacking is the political will to start building the energy economy of the 21st century rather than the energy economy of the last century.
News : You were talking about getting people involved in politics, what do you say to a farmer, who has probably voted conservative all his life, but is concerned about the environment
Hudema: It’s still important that people realize that they can influence the political system. For a lot of people, the moment that their position really starts to change is an energy project really threatens their land. Then they realize how few rights they have.
If there’s an oil deposit beneath you’re land, you may own the surface, but someone can come one day and say this is what we think is fair market price. And your out.
News: Well, that’s the controversy with upgrader expansion in Fort Saskatchewan right now.
Hudema: Oh for sure, and that’s the work that I’ve been doing, that Greenpeace is doing, lately. It’s some of the more fulfilling work I’ve done to sit down with non-traditional allies, people who have voted conservative all their life.
I’ve even been working with one guy who was part of (Premier) Stelmach’s campaign team.
Suddenly when that energy company comes to your front door and you realize how little rights you have. That’s the time when you need to come together and find out what is our shared value. It’s the environment, protecting agricultural land, diversifying our economy because it’s not all about petroleum production. There’s agriculture as well.
How can we come together and use each other’s skills… the question of climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We have to address it, and the question is how do we best address it.
The environment is not a left or right issue. It’s something that we have to protect and we have to find allies inside the Conservative party and people who have voted with them. It’s a shared value and we’re not seeing it reflected in our government’s policies right now.
News: Talking about potential allies in the Tory Party… You’re from Medicine Hat, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner is from Medicine Hat. Ever sat down and had a cup of coffee?
Hudema: (Laughs) We have sat down with them and it was a pretty frustrating meeting. We met right after the Syncrude incident, when the 500 ducks died in the tailing pond, and we called for a public inquiry into it.
We felt that there had been such a collapse of the entire process. It was phoned in by a tipster, the government wasn’t notified by the company, there are no government officials in the field monitoring these companies. A lot of it is left up to the company. So we felt a full, public inquiry was needed to look into not only Syncrude’s role, but into the government’s role and what the government could be doing to ensure compliance…
That was rejected. So we sat down with the minister… We had a list of 10 what we thought were very reasonable demands and to every one, Mr. Renner said “No.”
No, it’s not going to be public knowledge. No, we’re not giving you a timeline. No, we’re not going to look into the government’s role.
News: When people first heard about the ducks, there were even letters in the Medicine Hat News saying that ducks will be ducks. Is that misguided? I know that Greenpeace is concentrating on the policing aspects. Maybe is there a perception that environmentalists are out there with toothbrushes trying to save a duck or two?
Hudema: I don’t know. The reason the duck issue was so big was that it was the first time people were given images of the tar sands and these toxic tailing lakes and how massive they are (50 square kilometres). That captured the imagination quite a bit.
Our position all along is that the duck incident is just the tip of the tar sands iceberg. There was a complete collapse of the process that we have to look at, but there’s all this other devastation that’s occurring. Yeah, 500 dead ducks is a tragic incident, but this is happening everywhere in that area.
In fact, we’re working a lot with people down stream in First Nations communities that are facing very rare forms of cancer in amounts that shouldn’t be found in those numbers in their community, and having those people die.
News: That’s in Fort Chipewyan?
Hudema: That’s all being silenced now. It’s difficult bringing that to people’s attention or the media’s attention. It has been frustrating.
News: Changing gears a little bit, what do you think about the provincial government’s recent $4 billion transit and environmental spending.
Hudema: To me, it’s a no. I mean, it really seems like the government’s still not getting it.
It was a very flashy announcement: $4 billion to fight climate change. And the government’s been trumpeting it everywhere, but if you look at the numbers by 2015 this will take one million cars off the road.
But look at the tar sands and how much it’s expected to grow in terms of emmisions, and you’re putting 15 million cars on the road over the exact same time.
Look at the environmental plan. With carbon capture, emissions are expected to increase past 2020. You have the world’s scientific community telling us that we need to cut emissions and the most-critical time period is the next 10 years. Our government’s response is that emissions are going to continue to rise in Alberta.
Scientists are saying that we need 80 to 90 per cent reduction by 2050. Speaking in terms of cars again, our government will be about 34 million cars short of where it needs to be.
News: How did the Oil Sands travel video come together.
Hudema: The idea came up right after the announcement that the government was going to take $25 million of taxpayers’ money and go around the world saying that every was okay at the tar sands, everything was under control.
It was born out of that, but the final straw was CAPP (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) also launching a website called “a conversation with Canadians” (www.canadasoilsands.ca) about the tar sands.
We launched our site as a humourous way to get at very serious issues. This seems to be what the government and industry are saying, that everything is perfect, and how could you be ashamed of the tar sands?
We start at the basis of coming on a tar sands vacation, then we got to the fact that the tar sands use as much water as two cities of Calgary, the fact that they use enough natural gas every day to heat 300,000 homes. We tried to bring people into the site with humour, then give them facts and a way to take action by writing directly to the premier telling him to listen to Albertans and put the brakes on the project.
News: There have been a couple campaigns along the same sort of lines, with a tongue in cheek element and a factual element. In 2006 you called Global warming the greatest threat to hockey since the NHL Labour talks. Does that help keep you going? It helps get beyond the numbers which put some people off.
Hudema: Anytime you can do something with humour, I mean, the issues that we’re dealing with, especially with the tar sands, somedays are completely overwhelming.
Some days you’re working with land owners who have been on the land for three generations but are seeing people around them move away and get bought out. They see industry coming onto their land and don’t have much to do about it.
Or working with First Nations folks who are facing and dying of cancer. It’s a tough job.
When you’re able to do something with humour, first of all it’s a nice every once in a while just for you, so you can continue to do this work with a bit of a smile.
But I also think humour is a great way to bypass people’s biases, getting to people.