STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Dead Duck Lake

Posted by mhudema on September 25, 2008

Oilsands: Fowl play

Andrew Nikiforuk
From the September 29, 2008 issue of Canadian Business magazine
On a late July morning, 11 members of Greenpeace did what entrepreneurial activists do best: bold ventures. Armed with bolt cutters, the green crew drove north of Fort McMurray, Alta., severed a chain lock and then broke into Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s Aurora North settling basin, now known to millions around the world as the infamous watery graveyard for 500 migrating ducks. (Locals just call the waste pond “Dead Duck Lake.”)

The protesters attempted to block a waste pipe and unveiled a large banner along the bank of the two-kilometre-wide toxic lake that read “World’s Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.” It was but another salvo in the public relations war over the world’s largest energy development. One side calls the bitumen boom “dirty oil” while miners and governments call the multi-billion-dollar project a sustainable “anchor of prosperity.” (For the record, the oilsands mining industry now generates 1.8 billion litres of toxic waste a day; nearly all of the lakes of impounded waste leak; and no, the whole mess, as Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled, is not sustainable.)

The RCMP dutifully detained and fined the Greenpeace trespassers and left it at that. At the time, spokesmen for Syncrude, the largest oilsands developer and supplier of 13% of Canada’s oil, wisely expressed thanks that “no one was hurt.” The settling basin, after all, is a sprawling industrial site crawling with monster vehicles. But the company, which has a reputation for legally bullying its critics (including an 85-year-old U.S. grandmother and Colorado resident who was forced to remove photographs of Syncrude’s facilities from her too informative website), never said anything about financial pain. On Aug. 21, the mega oil miner, 25% of which is owned by the mighty Imperial Oil, sued the duck loving activists for $120,000 in damages. Furthermore, the company argued in its plucky statement of claim that the tailings B&E job actually put Syncrude “at risk of further physical damage to its property…and quiet enjoyment of the Operation Lands.” The company is also seeking a permanent injunction against the activists (including one Norwegian citizen) to prevent them from performing such hijinks again. Or highlighting the porous nature of security in the oilsands, for that matter. “The real driver here is safety,” says Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore. “They could put themselves at risk. We know there is a lot of debate about the oilsands and we support that.”

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Greenpeace organizers replied to the lawsuit with a mixture of pride and indignation. “I don’t think we’d be seeing this kind of action if we weren’t effectively doing what we are doing,” explained Mike Hudema, an Edmonton-based campaigner. “But it is a really punitive lawsuit that is designed to hurt us financially. It sends a message that dissent is not welcome here.”

In recent months, the group has scored major coups against both Syncrude and the Alberta government. At a fundraising dinner for Premier Ed Stelmach, Greenpeace activists made a mockery of security again, unveiling a banner that described Stelmach as “the best premier oil money can buy.” When Syncrude failed to set up its waterfowl deterrent system and 500 hapless ducks died in a toxic stew of bitumen, water and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons last April, the group pressed for the maximum $1-million penalty and made such a persistent fuss that even the president and CEO of the company, Tom Katinas, issued a full-page public apology in the Alberta editions of national newspapers. (To date, the province has pressed no charges or even tabled the results of its duck investigation.) And after the provincial government announced that it would spend $25 million to counter its “dirty oil” image, Greenpeace set up a mock website, travellingalberta.com, inviting prospective tourists to experience “an Oil Sands vacation” by fly-fishing or sailing on “the Oil Sands toxic tailing ponds of Alberta.”

But Syncrude’s lawsuit, if successful, may just be a case of Peter robbing Peter. Albertans working for the industry now give generously to the banner raisers. “The easiest donations to get are from the oilpatch,” explains Hudema. “They are the friendliest at the door and give the most readily.” Maybe the oilpatch workers know something about mining bitumen in the boreal forest that the oilsands spin doctors don’t.

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