STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Mordor of the North

Posted by mhudema on April 14, 2008

The War in the Mid-West

Morgan Maher

The Athabasca Oil Sands, located in northern Alberta, within boreal forest and peat bogs, covers 141 thousand square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) – an area larger than England – and represents a southern edge of the taiga. The world’s largest biome, the taiga stretches across Alaska, Canada, Sweden, Finland, inland Norway, Siberia, Northern Minnesota, Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Maine, northern Kazakhstan and Japan.

The taiga (Russian for “forest”) is comprised mostly of conifers like fir, spruce and pine. These plants are of immense ecological importance as they sequester carbon, regulate the earth’s climate, and prevent desert encroachment, mud slides, and flooding. Conifers have existed for over 300 million years, twice as long as the flowering plants.

This matters little to the Albertan and Canadian governments. Less than 8% of the taiga enclosed in Alberta’s provincial boundaries is protected from development while more than 50% has been allocated to logging companies for clear-cutting.

When the government introduced its 30 year plan to clear-cut sections of forest in Kananaskis, a grass-roots project called Tag-a-Tree sprang up whereby pieces of wood with the message “Save Kananaskis” were hung on trees in the surrounding area. Ironically, as the project and local awareness gained momentum, the District Conservation Officer threatened to charge people; apparently it is a crime to hang a piece of wood, in the woods, with a message on it saying, “save the woods.”

In addition to mass clear-cutting, the northern Alberta tar sands project (“ground zero for global warming”) rages on. The oil in these tar sands is not found in conventional wells; it is mixed in with the soil. Every barrel of oil produced means approximately forty-five hundred pounds of earth has to be dug up and separated. The extraction process used in this area, which some are beginning to call “Mordor,” requires one barrel of gas and up to eight barrels of water to extract two barrels of crude oil. Every year, 359 million cubic meters of fresh water is taken from the Athabasca River–enough to serve a city of one million people for two years. This water cannot be returned to the rivers, so it goes into artificial lakes, called “tailings ponds” or “byproduct ponds,” which are full of dead water, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, and toxic trace metals like mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all with an oil slick on top. Each cubic meter of crude oil extracted results in three to five cubic meters of tailings that need to be stored. Many of these toxic lakes are so vast that they’re visible from space.

The most dangerous ingredient in these waters is naphthenic acid. Repeated exposure to naphthenic acid can cause liver problems and brain hemorrhaging in mammals. Higher concentrations pose even greater health risks. Another component, alkyl-substituted polyaromatic hydrocarbon, kills or deforms birds, so oil companies fire air guns around the tailings ponds to scare the birds away.

In terms of volume, 2006 saw 1.126 million barrels per day produced in northern Alberta oil sands projects, second only to Saudi Arabia. Ed Stelmach, the current Premier of Alberta, is intent on tripling that number by 2016. This increase in production is scheduled to proceed without any requirements to reduce resulting emissions. In fact, emissions will be permitted to triple until 2018, with hundreds of smaller companies completely exempt from the Canadian government’s green plan.

In Alberta, it is not until the year 2050 that carbon emissions are required to be cut. Astonishingly, Stelmach claims this target is “realistic because it will ensure environmental protection and continued economic growth.” Stelmach’s plan for reduction, if and when it’s ever enacted, is not simply about cutting back or eliminating emissions; the plan intends to bury or inject emissions underground using a supposedly leak-proof method.

Add to this the fact that Alberta alone accounts for approximately one-third of Canada’s total emissions and Canada ranks among the top producers of emissions on the planet, placing 7th out of 207 countries for carbon dioxide emissions and 12th out of 185 countries for greenhouse gases.

This marks the province of Alberta, especially as a political body, as one of the most environmentally destructive places and governments on Earth. The recent CBC documentary “Tar Sands: The Selling of Alberta” described a frightening statistic: “there is enough oil in northern Alberta to sustain American energy needs for the next 100 years.” In 2003, a New York Times article asked “Will Calgary Be the Next Kuwait?” By 2008 it is clear the province has already been invaded, since the majority of all pipelines in northern Alberta run south into the US. Additionally, China and India are looking at the province with hungry eyes. Instead of becoming a “global energy power,” Canada has become an oil colony.

While it rips apart the land and gives resources away, the Canadian government continues its genocide upon First Nations. Both Albertan and Canadian governments have repeatedly ignored UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) rulings concerning a land rights settlement with the northern Alberta based First Nation, the Lubicon. In 1990, and again in 2005, the UNHRC ruled that Canada “should consult with the Band before granting licenses for economic exploitation of the disputed land, and ensure that in no case such exploitation jeopardizes the rights recognized under the [International] Covenant [on Civil and Political Rights].”

The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights issued a similar ruling in 2006, and in 2007, a ruling by the Special Rapporteur for Housing called for Canada to “place a moratorium on all oil and extractive activities in the Lubicon region until a settlement is reached with Lubicon Lake Nation.”

None of these rulings have been acknowledged by any government or corporation.

A mere seven months after the 2005 UNHRC ruling, Alberta sold conventional oil and gas leases and exploration licenses to over 65,000 hectares of Lubicon Traditional Territory, approved 50 new oil and gas wells, and approved close to 50 new pipelines on Lubicon lands. When UN officials gathered in May 2006 to review the Lubicon case, Alberta announced that over 50,000 hectares of Lubicon territory would be put on the auction block for new tar sands exploitation.

As of 2008, the Canadian government has not changed its course. The only whisper of action from within the oil companies has come from a lone Trans Canada Corporation shareholder who wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Board stating: “…this situation constitutes an unacceptable failure by management to adequately address a serious, internationally recognized human rights issue that pertains directly to the operations of the company.

Over the course of 28 years, oil wells on Lubicon Traditional Territory have generated an estimated $13 billion. The Lubicon have so far received zero compensation. Rather, the Lubicon, along with many other Alberta First Nations, face many extreme health, social, and economic issues. Cancer is rampant in the area, of course, as well as skin diseases, asthma and miscarriages. Housing is inadequate. Running water is scarce. Suicide rates are high. Traditional ways of life are being destroyed. Cree elder Celina Harpe describes her first hand experience of the devastation in this video.

But it is not just the First Nations who suffer; the lust for oil has brought hardships to many different peoples within the province. Infrastructure is strained to the maximum and crumbling. Health Care and Hospitals have been destroyed– literally. Several years ago Calgary’s General Hospital, which served the central part of the city since 1895, was demolished in a controlled implosion. Not long after, the Grace Hospital was closed and the Holy Cross Hospital was sold. Calgary has now only four hospitals, one of which is exclusively a children’s hospital.

By contrast, Winnipeg, Manitoba, with a population of 650,000 has seven hospitals, while 15 hospitals serve the Greater Toronto Area. Calgary’s hospitals are reminiscent of disaster scenes and war zones. Due to severe shortages of nurses, doctors and beds, area hospitals are filled beyond capacity, with patients attended to in lounges and hallways. Some die after being refused admission, others are literally dying in the waiting room. Consider that Calgary, where many international oil companies are based, has a population of roughly one million people, yet its ever-increasing urban sprawl stretches across an area larger than New York City.

The United States has the crusading George W. Bush. Cuba suffered under the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Canada is burdened with the insane oil-frenzy of Ed Stelmach. Castro held power in Cuba for 49 years. Benito Mussolini ruled for 21 years. Ed Stelmach’s “Progressive Conservative” party has governed Alberta for 37 years, and will continue for at least another four.

A recent provincial election brought the sting of political blunder and manipulations, like those of the 2001 and 2004 US Presidential elections, close to home. On Election Day, the “Election Alberta” website failed, leaving hundreds if not thousands of people with absolutely no clue of where to go to vote, myself included. Calling the election phone number resulted in reaching the full voicemail box of one Andrea Viltard. Who is Andrea Viltard? No one knows. One voter later described what he felt was his only option: to drive around until he found a polling station.

By late afternoon functionality had returned to the website, but this dealt a severe blow to what was to be a record low voter turn-out. Only 41% of the province’s 2,252,104 eligible voters cast a ballot. Of that 41%, Stelmach and his “Progressive Conservatives” gathered the support of 52.66% of the voters, a little over 20% of the total eligible voting population. This means that of the estimated 3,486,767 people living in Alberta, approximately 900,841 people voted and of this number, only about 468,000 people, many of whom likely employed by the oil industry, decided to put the “Progressive Conservatives” into office.

This is the shameful state of Canadian democracy and the kind of corporation-government-dictatorship that, whether it knows it or not, wages a war of absolutely horrific scale upon the environment, upon humanity, and upon the health, well being and future of the planet. This reckless and psychopathic entity that controls the oil sands of northern Alberta disobeys UN Human Rights Committee rulings, steals land, deprives the world of clean air, pursues questionable political processes, and is among the worst polluters on the planet, fueling a cancer within the largest biome on Earth. It is effectively putting a death-grip upon the throat of every living thing in this world.

Furthermore, Ed Stelmach has repeatedly stated that he will “not touch the brakes” where it concerns Alberta’s oil industry. Whether tar sands reserves supply four years or 100 years worth of oil, a brick wall fast approaches. The man at the wheel of “the most destructive project on Earth” has the pedal to the floor, his eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, a bloodstream full of greed, and a head full of power. Peak Oil is one thing; a car crash of unprecedented horror is another thing altogether.

As if the devastation from clear-cutting and tar sands wasn’t enough, plans are moving forward to build a nuclear power station near, of all places, the Peace River in northern Alberta. Enormous amounts of water are needed to cool nuclear reactors, and approximately one cubic meter per second will be taken from the Peace River to keep the reactor safe. Considering the accelerating destruction of the surrounding biosphere, and the potential for drying and desertification, it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to foresee a serious nuclear meltdown.

The situation is sadly symbolic of, and horrifically central to, the current planetary crisis. Like other contemporary wars, this war in northern Alberta knows few boundaries, touches the lives of billions of people, and severely endangers the future of the human species.

I am one who will always ally with the Earth and I am certain that, millennia hence, the planet will flourish. But unless these projects cease, Humankind will soon become like these fossils that fuel such frenzy and folly.

While I fully acknowledge the fact that it will take more than a letter to change these things, I’ve prepared a petition you can sign which will be sent to Ed Stelmach and Albertan and the Canadian government.

I also urge people to join the Reality Sandwich reading and discussion group regarding Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt

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One Response to “Mordor of the North”

  1. […] mhudema wrote an interesting post today on Mordor of the NorthHere’s a quick excerptIn addition to mass clear-cutting, the northern Alberta tar sands project (“ground zero for global warming”) rages on. The oil in these tar sands is not found in conventional wells; it is mixed in with the soil. … […]

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