Thursday, June 3, 2010

BP leak does not take the stain off the tar sands

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "BP leak drawing attention, but so should tar sands")

There’s been a strange reaction in parts of Canada to BP’s Gulf disaster. Our oiliest premier Alberta’s Ed Stelmach, on tour in the US, has been touting the “cleanliness” of the Athabasca tar sands in comparison to the big spill down south and deepwater drilling in general.

It’s a misleading comparison. BP’s blowout is releasing perhaps a million gallons of crude daily into the ocean. Sound pretty scary? It is. But realize that tar sands tailing ponds leak almost three million gallons of oil-polluted wastewater each day – three times the rate of the BP disaster – and that’s when things are going normally! Speaking of which, the term “tailings pond” is a bit misleading: these lakes of waste are so huge they can be seen from space, their total area already greater than Lake Couchiching.

As a high school student in the 80s, I toured the Syncrude operation near Fort McMurray. I walked on and touched the tarry, sandy soil and they even sent us home with samples (which I still have). I climbed the massive machinery required to scrape away forests and dig up sand to be fed into huge, stinky processors. I watched clean water turned into polluted steam, smelled nasty chemicals clouding the air. I will never forget it.

Back then, the whole thing was essentially a long-term experiment, as the procedure was just too expensive to turn a profit. But with rising prices the economics have changed, and the “trial” facilities now produce the largest share of America’s oil.

If the BP spill is a shocking disaster, then even more shocking is our indifference to the ongoing disaster out west. It continues, day after day and year after year and most of us seem to just shrug. If we had live web-cams showing the amount of pollution being created, the birds and animals dying in the waste lakes, would we be so callous? Would we send our premiers south with their deceptive message of “clean, safe energy

Just as the Gulf spill will destroy fisheries, coastland, and tourism, the extraction of tar sands bitumen and other fossil fuels comes at the expense of the farmland and forests of Alberta (and now Saskatchewan). And the money spent developing tar sands crowds out investment in what should be an amazing Prairie solar and wind energy resource.

Some might accuse me of being a hypocrite. Do I not use gas to drive around, so aren’t I part of the problem? Yes – and no. My wife and I both walk to work, and we enrolled my daughter in a school 2 blocks away. Our family uses a fuel-efficient diesel bug for necessary errands, running on bio-diesel when available. We installed solar water heating, bringing our gas use so low they can’t even bill us right half the time. We have worked hard to reduce or minimize our consumption, and our society could do the same, so as not to need new sources of dirty fossil fuels.

But that’s not the plan. Premier Ed Stelmach and Prime Minister Stephen Harper are united in a dream, not of curtailing tar sands destruction, but expanding the operation 500%. So instead of 3 BPs per day, we’d be 15. Is that progress? If you ask me, it’s heading in the wrong direction, with a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

Update: Somehow the source article for this got re-posted at "Save the Sacred Sites".

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