The Alberta Tar Sands Project
A Monumental Lapse in Ethics
The Alberta Tar Sands Project is an abomination…a crime against nature…a crime against the Earth… a crime against the Aboriginal community and a crime against everything that is sane, good and ethical. Having been raised in northern Alberta I have been to the Tar Sands and worked there as well back in the mid-70’s. The brilliant video documentaries by Jennifer Baishwal and Edward Burtynsky provide – for those who have never been to the area – a blisteringly accurate portrayal of what the Tar Sands are all about. The sheer immensity of the crime. In addition, for anyone who’s interested, there are dozens of heart-wrenching documentaries about the Tar Sand’s far-reaching effects on northern Alberta’s indigenous communities. One such doc showed native Cree fisherman pulling fish from the local rivers with two heads. Two heads.
As if the Tar Sands themselves aren’t the scariest, most depressing thing to behold, there is something even more depressing and more scary. It is a topographical map showing the unfathomable scope and breadth of the Alberta Tar Sands formation itself. This is not for the faint of heart folks. The developed Tar Sands as they exist today – like a malignant cancer festering on the face of the Earth – has tapped into only a fraction of the over-all expanse of the carboniferous-era geological formation. The tar sands formation is estimated to hold 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil (2010 figures) which is second only to Saudi Arabia in volume. The topographical map clearly showed the formation extending a hundred miles north of Ft McMurray and a couple hundred miles eastward into the province of Saskatchewan and even into the Peace River district in the northwest quadrant of the province. Much of those vast expansions are not yet developed but what is most frightening and foreboding is that they could be.
The Province of Alberta is the author of its own misfortune. When it struck oil in Leduc back in the 1920’s things got crazy real fast…it quickly became known as ‘Texas north’. Derricks began popping up all over the place and the politicians and oil companies were swooning with their new found wealth. But over time, sitting on top of a seemingly inexhaustible motherlode caused the high rollers and the politicians to become fat and lazy, careless and sloppy. With this much wealth locked away in one resource (oil and gas) why diversify the economy…better to put all your eggs in one basket. That fateful decision, fueled by greed and lacking vision and foresight, would one day come back to haunt the province. That day is today. With the ‘inconvenient truth’ setting in that the planet must quickly begin phasing out fossil fuels – combined with Alberta’s ‘one-trick pony’ mentality – the once prosperous province now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Even the fat cats in Texas had the foresight to diversify their economies. That’s why both the provincial and federal governments (the federal government has prospered royally from Alberta’s oil boom) are scrambling to ram these four pipeline projects through the courts and regulatory agencies. An act of pure desperation.
Unless you’ve had your head buried in the ‘sand’ for the past twenty or thirty years you will have sensed by now that the planet is – not just entering or on the verge of – but actually fully engaged in another extinction event. I’m not going to go into all the salacious details…the global scientific community has been screaming about it for years. There is a general consensus among these Nobel Laureate types that the ‘good ship Lollipop’ is going down and it’s going to take most of the Earth’s land, air and ocean-based organisms with it. The only consolation I suppose – from a purely nature-centric point of view – is that approximately half of the Earth’s living organisms (mainly prokaryotic, unicellular…similar to what we started with three and a half billion years ago) exist and thrive deep within the Earth’s crust and combined with the fact that our planet is relatively young and in the early stages of its ‘life-cycle’ means it will survive this current onslaught by the advanced, modern industrialized super-humans.
If there wasn’t a glimmer of hope that this ugly mess could somehow be rectified I’d probably go and drown myself in a barrel of diluted bitumen. At the recent summit in Paris, as with those that preceded it, the industrialized nations of the world all signed agreements and protocols declaring that the number one priority is to phase out our dependency on fossil fuels and do it P.D.Q. Of course the problem with well-intentioned, non-binding environmental accords is that they tend to fizzle out after all the hoopla, hugging, back slapping and high-fives are over (see Kyoto, Rio Summit, Copenhagen, etc.). But regardless, the writing is on the wall. As we continue recklessly careening towards the 600+ppm range of atmospheric CO2 it is imperative that industrialized nations quickly convert their fossil fuel-dependent energy systems to greener and more sustainable technologies. Of course converting systems is one thing, converting attitudes and profit-driven mindsets is another. This is the fly in the ointment, changing deeply entrenched mindsets and attitudes. Take for example the pipeline-centered boondoggle currently unfolding in this country between the governments of Canada and its two westernmost provinces; British Columbia and Alberta.
Without getting bogged down in too much detail (there’s lots of detail available via Canada’s print and electronic media) Alberta’s N.D.P and Canada’s federal Liberal governments – in concert with the petroleum industry (Kinder Morgan, Enbridge, the Tar Sands people, et al) are all trying their damnedest to ramrod pipeline expansion legislation through their respective legal systems that would effectively fast-track the shipment of diluted bitumen and other petroleum-based products to the lucrative American and overseas markets. It’s basic economics 101…it’s been going on all over the globe since time immemorial. Governments, crowns and states developing and exporting their natural resources in order to replenish their coffers.
So what’s the big problem.
Well, there are actually two or three big problems and how the Alberta and Canadian governments deal with them will provide a litmus test on whether we, as a fossil fuel-dependent, industrial nation can come to our senses before it’s too late (maybe it already is).
Smoke, Mirrors and Hidden Agendas
The first big problem has to do with perception…or rather, deception. Spread out a map of the world including North America and with a black magic marker outline the area identified as the Alberta Tar Sands formation, situated in the northeast quadrant of the province. With the marker now trace four heavy black lines representing the four major pipelines that are at issue; The Kinder Morgan, Energy East, Northern Gateway and the Keystone XL. Extend the black lines to their terminuses; Eastern Canada, the Gulf of Mexico, Vancouver BC and Prince Rupert BC. Next, from those four terminuses trace many many black lines that represent tanker traffic to global petroleum markets. Now step back from the map and it becomes quite obvious that the complicated network of black lines criss-crossing the entire globe all converge on one single point…the Alberta Tar Sands. The Alberta and Canadian governments, in concert with the Tar Sands and petroleum industries are prepared to invest tens of billions of dollars in these four pipeline projects…that’s tens of billions. Now ask yourself…does investing tens of billions of dollars in major pipeline projects all emanating from the Tar Sands appear consistent with an industry in fossil fuel phase out mode? Of course not. Corporations and governments do not waste their time investing obscene amounts of money in short-term projects that hold no future viability. My gut feeling on this is; instead of downsizing, phasing out and weaning themselves off fossil fuels these legislative and corporate entities are secretly preparing to ramp up their operations well into the unforeseeable future which, when translated, means aggressive and long term development of the entire Alberta Tar Sands formation. I’ll bet the farm on this.
The Elephant in the Room
The second big problem has to do with – surprise, surprise – more deception. Over the past few years the Canadian and Alberta governments have been trumpeting (ad nauseum) the many benefits of the pipeline projects. This aggressive, taxpayer funded snow job focuses almost entirely on jobs, economy, jobs, economy, jobs, economy and the financial security of both Canada’s and Alberta’s future. Jobs and the economy are valid concerns, no one is disputing that. But if they become the primary focus and main priority then the overall system will flounder. Why? Because government and the energy sector are in denial of – and refuse to factor in – the ‘elephant in the room’. The elephant in this case is climate change. It’s like perching jobs, economy and security on a big branch of a tree…if you don’t index in the long-term health and well-being of the planet (the branch) then climate change (the elephant) will, in short order, cleave the branch from the tree. This isn’t rocket science. No branch….no jobs and no economy. Because of the desperate situation Alberta has gotten itself into – by failing to diversify its economy and squandering its Heritage Fund – both the provincial and federal governments are now forced to create a ruse, a great deception whereby they harangue the Albertan and Canadian taxpayers with the false promises of short term gains while at the same time blatantly (and with premeditation) ignoring the long term pains. This is how desperate these folks are. This magnitude of deception borders on criminal or, for those of the religious persuasion, a (mortal) sin of omission.
When Hasn’t it Been About Racism?
“Racism is a lot like carbon monoxide… it’s invisible, odorless and tasteless and you really don’t know it’s there until it kills you.”
The third problem deals with the issue of racism. Could a provincial and federal government be so callous and unconscionable that they would continue to promote the ruse (jobs, economy, jobs, economy) while criminally ignoring the Tar Sands negative and oftentimes lethal impact on the local native population’s health and well being. Cancer rates have accelerated for native peoples living in the vicinity of the Tar Sands…the tailings ponds are notorious for leaching pollutants and other carcinogens into the local waterways (125 million gallons a year – 2010 figures). It appears to be the hallmark of advanced modern industrial societies to place dollars and profits ahead of people, especially if they are native people. If the Tar Sands had been discovered beneath the cities of Edmonton or Calgary I think there would be a much different scenario unfolding. But the vast formation was instead discovered beneath the traditional and sovereign territories of the Woodlands Cree and Chipewyan (Dene) who were indigenous to that area for well over ten thousand years. The same attitudes exists today that so many years ago justified the illegal invasion (colonization) of the Americas. That attitude being; there’s nobody up there except ‘a few savages’. Racism…you bet. The province of Alberta, as well as the Dominion of Canada, were established upon the foundation of racism.
Can there be any doubt that the Alberta and Canadian governments have lost their ethical and moral bearings? Their actions thus far indicate they are prepared to compromise natural ethics, aboriginal rights, environmental rights and common sense for the sake of economies, jobs and prosperity. But we are living in extreme, radical times and are sorely in need of visionaries and courageous leaders who have the intestinal fortitude required to make difficult (and vastly unpopular) decisions. But instead we are left with gutless and reactionary politicians (both federal and provincial) who are more interested in votes and winning elections than doing what’s best for the planet and its inhabitants. Yes, building pipelines and subsidizing the petroleum industry will certainly get you votes…but at what cost?
The Establishment of a National Energy Transition Fund
The solution to this conundrum is staring us right in the face. Considering what we now know about the science of climate change – and the science is ‘undeniable’ – only a fool would support and subsidize the ramping up of the Alberta Tar Sands, the pipelines and the fossil fuel industry in general. But the strategic phasing out of fossil fuels doesn’t have to be a horrendously painful experience as some economic pundits suggest. All stakeholders – including the work force, the indigenous community, environmentalists, the petroleum industry and (last but not least) the planet itself – would benefit from a well thought out strategy. Although a practical and responsible way to proceed, it would first require a paradigm shift in attitudes and mindsets on the part of governments, industry, the work force and the general public. That’s half the battle right there…. attitudes and mindsets.
The implementation of such a proposal could happen in two phases…. Phase One dealing with financing and Phase Two with the physical transition itself. Any discussion of financing could be prefaced with the following factoid. A few years back some conservative think tank attempted to figure out Canada’s ‘net worth’. I heard the report on a CBC news program and vaguely remember the estimate being in the thirteen (13) to twenty-three (23) trillion dollar range. Regardless of whether thirteen or twenty-three, the point is that if the political will, the public support and the attitudinal changes are there then we have, buried within our ‘net worth’, the financial resources and wherewithal to create a national energy transition fund to help shepherd and underwrite Canada’s (and Alberta’s) critical conversion to clean, renewable energy, i.e., wind, solar, geothermal, electric, etc. (Note: The federal government would bear the lion’s share of the costs because it is in the best interest of the whole nation that we quickly wean ourselves off fossil fuels). Instead of throwing tens of billions away on ill-conceived and wrong-headed pipelines (that will mire us and the rest of the globe in a long-term dependency on dirty oil) that money could be steered toward the initial fund to kick-start this noble endeavor. If the federal and provincial governments are really interested in being part of the solution (and setting the pace as a global leader on transitioning to green economies) they could easily devise creative ways to tap into to the nation’s ‘net worth’.
The second phase of this proposal would be the gradual downsizing, transitioning and retraining of the petroleum/tar sands industry and its work force. (This is all easier said than done and the timelines would be measured in decades but bear in mind this is only a concept, a draft proposal…a thumbnail sketch). There are several directions from which to approach this monumental challenge. The first front would be for the National Energy Transition Fund to begin directing the transition of specific segments of the petroleum/tar sands industry towards ‘greener’ energy technologies. (This proposal does not envision the need for wholesale ‘buy outs’ or attrition as a primary driver because the transition process itself is pre-designed to remain ‘in the family’.…the corporate family that is). In tandem with facility conversion would be the retraining of those workers whose positions have become redundant due to the gradual conversion. The conversion of petroleum and tar sands-based facilities to green technologies would also present a ‘turn key’ opportunity for corporate structures, investors and shareholder as well. The petroleum industry would be in the optimum position – considering they already own the converted facilities – to carry on ownership and investment protocols with a minimum of stress and inconvenience. Win win.
Another front would be to begin directing the new sources of green energy back into the grid as soon as is feasibly possible…this would be another win/win for everyone involved (i.e., governments, the Aboriginals, the environment, investors, the public and the planet).
Yet another front would involve the massive clean up and restoration of lands desecrated by the tar sands industry since the 1950s. In terms of employment this would be a real boon to both the federal and provincial work forces, government revenues and employment insurance and local economies. Win win. Employment opportunities would extend well into the twenty-first century and would include cleaning up those disgusting abominations know as ‘tailings ponds’.
First Nations would benefit hugely from the transition process. First and foremost the downsizing and restoration of the tar sands themselves would help to improve health conditions for current and future generations…. they deserve nothing less. Local natives could also take advantage of employment opportunities generated by the reclamation and restoration phase of the process.
(Author’s note: Having worked as a young man in northern BC and Alberta in heavy construction and railway bridge building I had the opportunity to help erect a number of bridges using the ‘falsework’ method. The following practical observation may provide a useful guideline in terms of the transitioning process to cleaner forms of energy).
The problem: An older wooden railway trestle-type bridge situated on the busy mainline between Vancouver and Prince George. After a safety inspection the old bridge is deemed unsafe and must be replaced a.s.a.p..
The challenge: How to tear down the old bridge and replace it with a new one while causing the least amount of slow down and/or stoppage to the busy mainline traffic. One might think the logical solution for such an undertaking would be to shut the mainline down for three or four months – the amount of time required for a bridge-building crew to do the work. Not a feasible option.
The solution: Someone came up with a unique idea called ‘falsework’ which insures the minimal amount of inconvenience and stoppage for the mainline traffic. It involves building a short siding at opposite ends of the old bridge (adjacent to the mainline and long enough to provide storage for the new bridge parts and sleeping quarters for the workers). A crane is situated at each end of the old structure and both cranes have easy access to the siding and the mainline going over the bridge. The logistics are simple. Starting at the opposite shallow ends of the bridge and working towards the centre, the bridge building crews, (along with the cranes and other machinery) will build the first new section (called a bent) immediately next to the old section they are replacing. This involves pile driving, attaching girders and cross-bracing then finally placing a ‘cap’ on the new section which will support the stringers, ties and rails. As soon as the new ‘bent’ is in place and secure the bridge crew disassembles the old section because the new section is now supporting the ties, rails and, most importantly, the daily trains using the bridge. Both crews then move to the next ‘bent’ and repeat the entire process. This continues on until the crews meet in the middle
And that’s how simple it is…a new bridge is constructed section by section ‘within’ the old structure and the old bridge is torn down section by section ‘within’ the new structure. And, the mainline doesn’t have to shut down at all. Of course timing is critical to the success of this process. Close coordination with daily traffic schedules is essential…the cranes can be easily parked in the sidings to allow a freight or passenger train to pass over the bridge. Even train schedules can be adjusted to allow for two or three trains to cross the bridge in one time frame allowing for extended periods of uninterrupted work on the bridge.
June 15, 2018