Last month, Josette Wier, who has been a indefatigable intervenor in the Enbridge hearings - took a tour of the tar sands. This is what she wrote about her trip.
I feel run down and my throat hurts. Is it because I feel choked or is there something I cannot swallow? I have just returned home to Smithers from an Enbridge sponsored guided tour of the Fort McMurray tar sands. Upon request and to their credit, Enbridge agreed to include me in their latest junket in spite of my open opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project.
Fort McMurray is a hole in the boreal forest, 467 kms north of Edmonton. From the air, the sprawling housing for its more than 100,000 inhabitants looks as if it is bursting at the seams because Crown land allocations are limited and there are seemingly constant traffic jams. Everything is young and new, including the population whose median age is 31. Superlatives abound: largest airport traffic in Canada, nearly completed largest recreational complex in Canada. Average house prices have reached $650,000.
There are two methods for extracting tar sands heavy crude called bitumen; mining and in situ recovery. Both require large quantities of water and energy. Mining is an open pit operation using the gigantic trucks often shown in the media. Interestingly 30% of the truck drivers are female who are very much liked for their gentler handling of the equipment. Bitumen mining requires the controversial tailing ponds lining the Athabasca River, which also receives the “treated” water. In situ recovery uses steam and does not require tailing ponds.
Suncor boasted about their 200 ha reclaimed area representing less than 1% of the land they used. A new directive from the Alberta Energy Regulations requires them to reclaim 50% in the future, albeit nobody knows if this is even possible.
While there, I felt a mix of fascination and horror; fascination came from witnessing the technological prowess and accomplishments. Horror came not only from the scale of the destruction, but also from a sense of planetary disconnection. There is no doubt that the young, happy, extremely well paid people and the significant number of foreign workers who could not dream of a $80,000/yr salary drying laundry in their own country, are all there for the money. However this is an unprecedented destruction of land, water and air allowed by extremely lenient federal and provincial regulations. A recently released report1 (July 2013) shows 4063 chronic and repetitive contraventions by the major players between 1996-2012 with an enforcement rate of 0.9% and a median penalty $4,500. Further, the area affected is larger than the extraction area. Carcinogenic products associated with bitumen extraction were found in lake sediments 90 kms from the extraction site2.
None of that was mentioned in the factoids delivered by the attractive tour guide. Neither was mentioned the contribution of the tar sands extraction to global warming, the most crucial issue of our time. Even if, as claimed, the contribution is only a few percentage points to global carbon emissions, such added percentage points can be the tipping point for disastrous consequences to come. It appears like a delusional world propped up by our heavily lobbied federal leaders promoting their aggrandized vision of Canada as a super energy power. By tripling production in the next 20 years, the CAPP representative explained that there still will be 100 years left of production (instead of 500). Are we to continue letting giant oil multinationals decide on our behalf or are we to develop a vision that will protect the planet and include the well-being of future generations?
The importance of the contribution of tar sands extraction to the Canadian economy is not supported by the numbers presented during the visit. If Alberta is receiving $2.3 billion in royalties, why has it recorded a $2.8 billion deficit in 2012? Federal taxes amounting to $1.5 billion represent a rather small percentage of the $1.74 trillion Canadian GDP.
No wonder I feel choked. For those of us who have not stepped into the “bitumen bubble”, it is clear that the future lies in careful planning for the reduction of our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions with a renewed sense of world citizenship and deep care for the future generations.
1Environmental Incidents in the Northeastern's Alberta Bitumen Sands Region 1996-2012, July 2013, Treeline Ecological research and Global Forest Watch.
2Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, Nov. 2012: Legacy of a half-century of Alberta oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems.