Tar Sands Day

There’s protesters occupying two dump trucks at the Albian plant, hanging a banner off Niagara Falls, and picketing the Canadian embassy in Washington. All this to celebrate Prime Minister Harper’s visit to President Obama. Let’s hope this activity marks some kind of tipping point in continental awareness of the tar sands and their special place in the canon of global-scale environmental mistakes.

Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  1. Tar sands don’t threaten habitat, they replace it. They’re huge. Never mind for the moment the release of toxic byproduct into the Athabasca or the apparent increase in disease incidences in downstream first nations towns, the tar sands are actually a hole in the surface of the earth. I would suggest looking at them in Google Earth, but the tar sands are also one of the few places on earth where the very topography of the planet is reshaped on a fast enough schedule that Google Earth’s elevation data is necessarily out of date.
  2. (and this is the big one) Tar sands is perhaps the most climate-destabilizing method of taking petroleum out of the ground that humans have invented. It takes a lot of effort to get those hydrocarbon chains out of that greasy black gunk. Effort means energy. We put energy in to get the energy out. The exact figure of how many barrels of oil you get out for each barrel worth of energy you put in is hard to come by, presumably because it’s so politically fraught. Pembina institute says the production of tar sands crude dumps about 3 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as other Canadian sources of oil, which is hardly a high standard. Oil prices will continue to climb as availability shrinks, so burning up some non-renewable resources to get some more of them faster will continue to be an economically feasible trade-off (as long as we don’t require the petro companies to cover the wider costs generated from climate destabilization). We have to decide for ourselves that environmentally, socially, this is not an acceptable trade-off. Today seems like a good day to make that call.

Write your government! If you’re in Canada, Dogwood Initiative has some tools for you. In the States swing by Rainforest Action Network. Canada sells the tar sands as a politically stable, domestic source of precious petroleum. Let’s demonstrate that having domestic oil means that it isn’t politically stable, because people here still have some say in how and when their dirt gets dug up.

A little Q&A:

Tar sands or oil sands? Kinda like notebooks or laptops. If you’re in the industry or directly engaging with them you say oil sands, otherwise you say tar sands. Both sound ugly and are.

What about the ducks? Yes, a whole bunch of ducks died when they landed on the giant tailings pond in the Aurora site, were coated in petroleum by-product and sank. 500, oh no wait, 1606 of them. In fact, Syncrude picked today to plead not guilty in the court case, even as they apologize and re-iterate the un-acceptableness of the duck’s deaths and their firm commitment to preventing further loss of duck life. 1600 ducks is sad, but not the issue. The simple presence of the pit mines will have driven down the local population levels of of animal and plant communities by plenty more than 1600. Who knows what the tar sand’s contribution to planetary climate de-stabilization will do to populations of species world-wide. I think the thing about the ducks is that they’re a clear symbol of identifiable harm, so we’re all hung up on them.

Can you occupy a dump truck? Occupation is normally reserved for buildings, it’s true. But these dump trucks are bigger than my house.

leave a comment