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Petro Problems in Cowboy Country

A black eye from black gold

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Petro Problems in Cowboy Country

Tar sands oil is the most energy-intensive petroleum on the planet. Certainly, the oil sands are making billions for Alberta, but the environment is suffering.

When it comes to mega-profits from mega-oil, the province of Alberta was not careful enough about what it wished for. What it has been granted, along with the riches, is a nightmarish mess of pollution that it has not begun to address.

Certainly, the oil sands are making big wads of cash for Wild Rose Country. The province’s 12.7 percent average annual growth in recent years has been almost on a par with that of China. Alberta’s GDP rose by 43 percent between 2002 and 2005, driven by the oil and gas boom. And the wealth is spreading across the land. The loonie has become a robust petro-currency, and folks in other provinces are benefitting from all the jobs being created.

By 2010 the three tar sands develop-ments in northern Alberta are expected to account for two-thirds of all the black stuff produced in Canada.

But while getting rich is fun, there’s a steep price to be paid, one that largely has been overlooked in the headlong stampede to feed the American oil beast and tote up the take.

A Porridge of Pollution

The fact is, the tar sands, covering territory equal to the size of Florida, accounts for some of the heaviest and worst-quality oil in the world. The onerous mining and refining process that turns the clay-trapped bitumen into synthetic crude is massively energy intensive, horribly polluting, and potentially dangerous to health. These are matters that politicians and corporate interests do not care to discuss.

A report jointly prepared by the World Wildlife Fund and the Pembina Institute has ranked the oil sands mines on 20 different environmental indicators in five categories: environmental management, land impacts, air pollution, water use, and greenhouse gas management. It concluded: “For the most part oil sands mines get a failing grade.”

And in 2006, amid all the jubilation about prosperity, population growth, and resource largesse, the Sierra Club of Canada labelled Alberta “the industrial pollution capital of Canada.”

Dream Turned Nightmare

Development of the oil deposits went from dream to reality just a few years ago, made commercially feasible by the rising price of oil and technological advancement. Only lately has the downside emerged as a policy issue. Even now it’s not a top-of-mind issue for Canadians; tar sands turf is geographically remote, populated mainly by native people.

The process itself of turning tar sands into a marketable product produces enormous carbon dioxide emissions, projected to double by 2011. And ever more emissions are churned out later on when the petroleum is burned as fuel.

Then there’s the fact that the land must be stripped bare. Two tons of tar sands are removed to create a single barrel of oil. This of course requires clear-cutting huge swathes of boreal forest, which contain 35 percent of Canada’s wetlands. Boreal forests account for 25 percent of all ancient forests remaining on the planet.

In addition, a network of roads, well pads, seismic lines, and pipelines further disturbs the terrain. This spells misery for the vast array of plants and wildlife that the forest ecosystem supports: grizzlies, wolverines, woodland caribou, and birds. Already, locals have noticed that caribou herds are in decline.

Enormous amounts of natural gas are used to coax the oil from the sands. And water­– twice the amount of water used by Calgarians in the run of a year. The resulting wastewater, with a stew of contaminants, is being stored in huge lagoon-like tailing ponds that can be seen from outer space. The oil companies sound air guns to ward off birds who might dare to alight near the ponds.

Toxic Health Care

Communities downstream from the oil projects say they are experiencing the impact of the water pollution, noticing abnormalities in the fish they’re harvesting–lumps, humpbacks, bulging eyes, crooked tails. Worse, they’re sending out an alarm about human health.

Dr. John O’Connor, Fort McMurray’s then-medical examiner affirmed their fears and went public in 2006, revealing that in the small native community of Fort Chipewyan, population 1,200, he’d diagnosed unusually high numbers of immune system disease affecting the thyroid as well as rheumatoid arthritis and skin rashes. He also treated five people who died from a rare bile duct cancer that normally occurs in one in 100,000.

What happened subsequently was astounding. Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons–responding to a complaint from Health Canada–slapped Dr. O’Connor with four professional misconduct charges, one of which was that he had raised undue alarm in his community.

In the autumn of 2007, after 14 years in northern Alberta, four of them spent caring for the Fort Chipewyan community, the besieged physician packed up and moved to rural Nova Scotia.

“Dr. O’Connor’s situation has left many physicians wondering if they too could be penalized for speaking out on behalf of their patients and, if so, whether tough whistleblower legislation for doctors may be needed,” huffs a January 2008 publication of the Polaris Institute, an Ottawa group of democratic activists critical of the tar sands enterprise.

Kevin Timoney, an Alberta ecologist who studies Alberta’s Athabasca River who himself has raised alarm bells about contaminants showing up in water downstream from the tar sands, called the complaints against Dr. O’Connor “completely unacceptable. It’s a clear case of trying to silence someone who has concerns.”

A Landscape Gone Lunar

The tar sands speak for themselves when it comes to the condition the terrain has been left in, an issue the companies seek to remedy through promises of land reclamation. Suncor has pledged to perform land reclamation on nine percent of the land it develops; Syncrude has promised to address 22 percent of land.

But the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, an organization that promotes sustainable forms of energy, reports: “Despite more than 40 years of oil sands development, not a single hectare of land has been certified as reclaimed under Government of Alberta guidelines.”

University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler estimates the figure is more like two percent of land. “Right now, the big pressure is to get that money out of the ground, not to reclaim the landscape. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could see these pits from a satellite 1,000 years from now.”

Hooked on a Boom

Tar sands pollution is no small problem. Fully 23 percent of the entire province is affected by oil sands development. And many competing interests are at play. The oil companies like things the way they are, as do the Americans who eagerly purchase 70 percent of the oil sands bounty. Politicians with an eye to the next election are happy to take credit for an economic boom they have a personal interest in sustaining.

The Pembina Institute opines philosophically: “We live in an economy and a consumer society that relies heavily on oil, and that makes it hard for all of us to acknowledge its true price.”

While many in Alberta have told pollsters the pace of development is too rapid, it’s mainly the organized environmental activists who have taken a serious stand against the tar sands, calling for a moratorium until health and safety issues can be addressed.

Governments are slowly moving to embrace carbon capture and storage technology which would at least deal with the burgeoning greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands.
But for the most part, the pleas and protests are barely being heard amid the powerful roar of machinery and money.

A Great Canadian Speaks Out

Former Canadian Ambassador to the UN, fundraiser for the needy in Africa, author, and university professor Stephen Lewis had this to say about tar sands development:

“It looks as though the tar sands will develop unimpeded, and it looks as though we’ll carry the unenviable position of being the worst polluters in the world per capita.

“I’d tell [Premier] Stelmach that he’s got a responsibility that goes beyond short-term re-election. It’s the world we’re talking about.”

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