STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Modern Parable: The Alberta Tar Sands

Posted by mhudema on March 25, 2008

Here’s the situation. Two rural neighbors live in a small town, one up river, and one downstream just where the river meanders into a lovely valley. They’re friendly, went to the same schools as kids, and have always exchanged kind words; in fact, they share a special bond, for both men have always rooted for the Maple Leafs, which gives them a few weeks to commiserate every spring when the Leafs fall early in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The first man, living upstream, is a good guy. He and his wife have raised a great family. He pays his taxes, employs a handful of people from the village, attends church every Sunday, and gives generously to several charities. But every day, he walks down to the river abutting his property and pours a few hundred gallons of a harmful chemical from his business downstream. He doesn’t mean for it to happen, but over several years, the chemical leaches into the well water of a few nearby homes.

His old Maple Leafs friend is particularly hard hit. He runs a small ranch, and loses half his cattle to illness one year. A few months later, he’s inexplicably suffering from migraines and nausea, and can’t do more than a few hours of work each day. His daughter, who is asthmatic, now has to take medication to keep breathing freely, and she’s had two scary trips to the Emergency Department. And now his wife has breast cancer, and needs surgery.

Finally, the authorities investigate and trace some of the problems to his neighbor. He is told to stop pouring chemicals into the river.

The guy refuses. After all, it’s his property. Surely he has the right to dispose of chemicals on his own land, if he choses. Hauling the toxins away for safe disposal will cut his profits by half, take time away from important chores, and during the winter, it gets pretty darn cold outside. If what he’s doing is harmful, then let the government clean it up. After all, isn’t that why he pays taxes?

Stripped of all its emotional value, this problem has a simple solution. The first man is behaving irresponsibly, and must show more consideration for his neighbor’s well-being. Under no circumstances should he should be allowed to pollute the water supply and make people sick in the process.

The Alberta Tar Sands

This parable has a modern corollary being played out every day in Canada. Simply put, Alberta is home to what The Environmental Defence Fund calls The Most Destructive Project on Earth (PDF). The Alberta Tar Sands.


While the federal and provincial Conservative governments look the other way — all in the name of prosperity — their immediate neighbors in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan are suffering from environmental trauma, and all of Canada suffers from the indignity of being — on a per capita basis — one of the world’s worst greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters.

For years, Alberta has polluted with nary a care for other provinces – mostly because we didn’t know any better. Now we do. So what do the people of Alberta owe us? What do the oil companies in Alberta — reaping billions in profits — owe us?

Perhaps some facts will aid your deliberations. The Tar Sands are located in Northern Alberta, comprising three major deposits that make Canada an international energy superpower, not so far removed from Saudi Arabia. The three oil sands projects combined cover an area larger than England, and hold proven oil reserves amounting to 1.75 trillion barrels. Many pundits talk about US dependence on foreign oil, and most look to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but the simple truth is that Canada supplies more black gold to the United States than any other nation.

The Problem

Ah, but here’s the rub. It’s not the bubblin’ crude of Beverly Hillbillies fame. It’s heavy, thick oil. In Canada, the earth doesn’t relinquish her bounty easily, and this oil needs serious processing before it becomes usable. It’s a dirty, dirty business. In fact, Alberta oil holds three or four times the greenhouse gases found in other crude.

But that doesn’t matter, because Tar Sands oil is highly profitable, especially with prices bouncing around $100 per barrel. The oil companies have invested more than $100 billion in the various oil sands projects, and the scale is expected to grow dramatically – by five fold – because the world, and the US in particular, needs more oil, and our federal government is pushing development.

Amazingly, the Conservative government gives tax breaks to companies active in the Tar Sands. Our money goes to pillage the environment.

Of course, pillage is a loaded word, but it applies, and I have no qualms about using it. Several of Canada’s First Nations live downstream from the oil sands, and still live off the land. One study suggested that moose meat from this region has 453 times the acceptable level of arsenic. Of course, the Alberta government calls that figure preposterous, and claims that arsenic levels are only 33 times as high as they should be. As if that fact should be comforting.

The Environmental Defense Fund points to a surge in cancer rates among some communities in Northern Alberta, and calls the Tar Sands projects a toxic moonscape.

It’s hard to argue with their data, or their conclusions:

By 2020, the two most active companies in the area will have created tailing ponds of toxic sludge that cover more than one billion cubic meters. Birds that land on these ponds will die within minutes.

Benzene, one of the most lethal human carcinogens, is released by Alberta’s Tar Sands into the atmosphere at a rate of 100 tonnes per year; it could be as high as 800 tonnes per year by 2015, if planned expansions occur. How much of that makes it to Saskatchewan? To Quebec? To Nova Scotia. We used to have a vibrant salmon fishery in Nova Scotia but the salmon population was killed by acid rain that was generated by pollution coming from the America industrial belt near Ohio. So I suspect some Tar Sands pollution makes it into the east, and that BC and Saskatchewan are getting battered.

According to the Environmental Defence Fund, “in 2005, existing facilities in the area produced 19,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 20,100 tonnes of sulphur dioxide. In October 2007, the province proposed airshed targets of 25,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 28,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per year, a growth in emissions for an already polluted area. And if experience is any guide, companies may be able to incur a financial penalty to exceed these limits.”

But Canadians shouldn’t be the only people raising an eyebrow to what is happening in Alberta. BP is expanding it’s facility in Indiana so it can process more heavy Canadian oil. The state legislatures have already given them a pollution waiver to send more toxins into Lake Michigan. In fact, tar sands oil is already being processed in Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Remember this heavy oil is heavy with greenhouse gases.

Warming the Planet, Alberta Style

In fact, the Tar Sands account for 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Alberta, with just 10 percent of Canada’s population, emits 40 percent of our country’s greenhouse gases. If we don’t do anything to stop it, the Tar Sands could be producing 142 million tonnes of GHG by 2020, so about 20 percent of the entire country’s emissions could come from this one project. Even if the rest of Canada goes crazy embracing the climate-change mantra, it doesn’t matter, because Alberta’s policies will ensure that we won’t meet any environmental commitments we make. In fact, Canada’s emissions are growing at a rate that exceeds any other country, and the Tar Sands are playing a huge role.

Now, as I was writing this, the Canadian government has crafted new regulations that call for industry-wide reductions in carbon emissions, phased in slowly over many years. It’s a start, but nothing more than a band-aid solution.*

So what does Alberta owe the rest of Canada?

It’s a complicated issue. Canada has unfortunate regional disparities, with the wealthiest three provinces giving money to federal government to distribute to the seven less-wealthy provinces. It’s part of the fabric of this country, but it’s created acrimony. People understandably don’t like parting with hard-earned cash. Back in the 1980s, when iconoclastic Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau enacted a National Energy Program that taxed oil revenues at a rate higher than other natural resources, thousands of Albertan bought bumper stickers that proclaimed the west should Let the Eastern bastards freeze together in the dark.

It is funny, but if you’re one of those eastern bastards, it hurts too.

But it’s also short-sighted. Alberta is a wealthy province by dint of its geology, not because Albertans are more industrious or brighter than anyone in Atlantic Canada or Manitoba. Some Albertans understand that, even if our illustrious Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not, chastising Atlantic Canada for wallowing in “a culture of defeat.”

I wonder if he would have said the same about his adopted province’s brothers and sisters two generations ago? As many Canadians know, Alberta was a have-not province until oil was discovered in the 1940s.

So should wealthy Alberta — where the standard of living is high, taxes are low, and everyone can find work — be made to clean up its act?

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Perhaps a few other facts will help you see this dilemma as I do. The first is that the technology exists to clean up Tar Sands oil production. It’s called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and it can work, although many competing technologies exist. You can pull most of the GHG from the oil and store them safely underground — in fact, the carbon can be liquified and stored in the deep empty wells that once held oil. Norway’s Statoil strips one million tons of carbon from North Sea Oil every year and pumps it into a saline aquifer, proving that you can be a responsible oil company and still make money.

Admittedly, oil companies don’t want to embrace CCS because it’s expensive. They can make a lot more money simply by pouring their toxins into the atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong; they’d still make money by employing CCS technology. Just not as much.

But they’d still want to do business in Alberta. And they are making money. In 2006, Suncor made $3 billion in profits. The Canadian Oil Sands Trust, which owns one-third of Syncrude, made $834 million.

What do those companies owe the rest of us? A few well paying jobs? Or has the time come for more corporate social responsibility?

After all, the resources belong to all of us, and to Albertans in particular. Why should they profit without first protecting us?

Our Prime Minister doesn’t believe natural resources belong to Canadians, just to the highest bidder. And he’s positively weak-kneed and ineffective at protecting our environment. In last month’s budget, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty could have taken steps that would have killed two birds with one stone; he could have encouraged carbon capture and spurred renewable energy.

David Suzuki Foundation to the rescue

As the David Suzuki Foundation described in a fascinating report released in February, a progressive Carbon Tax would reduce Canada’s GHG emissions significantly over the next dozen years while giving our country the wherewithal to meaningfully embrace new green technologies. And it won’t affect our GDP, and may even enhance it.

This is how it is being done around the world, particularly in the European Union, but they simply don’t have the energy reserves or natural resources that we do. By 2020, a carbon tax would have the potential to add $50 billion annually to federal coffers, which could be used to support renewable energy, make homes energy efficient, and reduce personal taxes.

It would begin slowly, perhaps at $10 per tonne next year, increasing by $10 per tonne each year to $100 in 2019. Tar sand companies – and companies across the country – can reduce the taxes they pay by reducing emissions. With oil at $100 a barrel, oil companies will continue to work the Tar Sands, and they will still make huge profits. We just won’t have to suffer for their transgressions.

So we start polluting less, and we start investing in worthy renewable and sustainable projects. For instance, in Nova Scotia, we have 5,000 miles (8,000) in undulating coastline with a long continental shelf. By using proven technologies, in the next decade or two, we could have bountiful renewable carbon-neutral energy produced by wind and wave farms, and Nova Scotia Power wouldn’t need gas or coal. In fact, I’ve been told by someone who knows that wind and wave energy from Nova Scotia has the potential to power all of Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and a sizable chunk of the US.

Imagine that world. And know this: We can get there from here.

But not with Stephen Harper at the helm. He’s beholden to the oil barons, and the status quo. He doesn’t care about eastern Canada, so I think we should elect someone who does. Someone who will embrace a Green vision of the future. We have three national parties who promise to do so in the Liberals, The Green Party, and the NDP, with the support of the regional Bloc Québécois.

And when Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, I promise not to buy a bumper sticker suggesting that those western bastards can freeze together in the dark. Because even now, as they destroy the planet, those Western Bastards are my brothers and sisters.


*The Sierra Club had this to say about Canada’s new regulatory framework: “In contrast, the Federal government’s announcement delays emissions reductions from new coal plants and tar sands projects by only requiring those coming into operation in 2012 or after to reduce emissions by 2018 at the earliest. In addition, the government has further weakened the regulatory framework by allowing polluters to buy their way out of 100% of their emissions reductions target by paying into a technology fund, without any guaranteed emissions reductions. 

“Delaying emissions reductions from new projects sends a perverse signal to industry to get as many new projects as possible approved before 2012 and thus avoid having to make reductions even by 2018,” said Emilie Moorhouse, Atmosphere and Energy Campaigner. “Instead of urgent action, this government’s response to climate change is all about delay.”

One Response to “Modern Parable: The Alberta Tar Sands”

  1. […] Modern Parable: The Alberta Tar Sands …bought bumper stickers that proclaimed the west should Let the Eastern … Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, I promise not to buy a bumper […]

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