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The Tar Sands Litany: tough times for Calgary oilmen, tougher times for their PR folks…

Josh Mogerman

Posted February 13, 2009

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Things looked pretty rosy in Alberta last summer when oil was trading for $140/barrel. Investments flooded in from folks all over the world eager to stake their claim on the Canadian province's cash cow: tar sands.

Sure, there were some blemishes, but money talks...

But as oil prices deflated, it was a lot harder for people to ignore the environmental carnage that went along with the dirtiest oil in the world. Despite a $25 million dollar campaign of spin, propaganda, and cosmetic changes, people around the world couldn't miss or ignore a series of nasty incidents that confirmed assertions from a growing chorus on both sides of the border against the ugliness in Alberta.

So pity the oilmen---they've had a rough ride in the last six months. Prices dropped and gaffs put the troubling underbelly of the tar sands into sharper focus. In the glittering Calgary office towers that house oil giants from around the world, they were shocked (along with the Canadian government) by the global revulsion. What could have opened the world's eyes and turned so many against the tar sands?

Well, I can think of a few things off the top of my head:

Maybe it was the reaction of the United Nations' water program chief, aghast with disbelief after taking an aerial tour over the moonscaped wastelands left from tar sands strip mining. When she came back to the ground she described the world's biggest industrial project as "a slow motion oil spill," noting:

We were devastated by what we saw and smelled and experienced. The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned and giant tailing ponds line the Athabasca River.

Or maybe it was the recent commentary from Bishop Luc Bouchard who leads the Roman Catholic diocese that covers the region where tar sands are mined:

I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oilsands constitutes a serious moral problem,

The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.

Or maybe it was the moving account of health problems in First Nation communities downstream from the euphemistically named "oil patch" (or "The Patch" for short). While the Canadian government recently downplayed the extremely rare cancers found in unusually high numbers there, the Academy Award nominated movie "Downstream" paints a picture that is extremely hard to ignore.

Or maybe it was the maximum fines levied this week over the death of 500 ducks that landed in a Syncrude waste pond (partially owned by ConocoPhillips and Murphy's Oil) over the summer. The water in these open sewers from the mines is so oiled and polluted, the birds did not have a chance from the moment they landed.

Or maybe it was the Danger in the Nursery report that we put out with Boreal Songbird Initiative and Pembina Institute. Nobody knows how many migratory birds die in those poisoned lakes (or as the oil folks call them, tailings ponds---even though the cover more than 30 square kilometers these days; that is a mighty big pond!), but the report puts the toll in the low five figures annually. And includes a scary projection of up to 166 million birds dying due to broader tar sands impacts in the coming decades.

Or maybe it was the Canadian government silencing some of their young citizensdemonstrating their concern at the climate talks in Poznan, Poland last year. The Canucks rewarded the students' political engagement by demanding their photos of the tar sand devastation be ripped down.

Or maybeit was the University of Toronto's Munk Center report that labeled the refining and pipeline infrastructure currently growing like mushrooms through out the upper US Midwest as a "pollution delivery system" going directly into the Great Lakes.

Or maybe it was the recent $1.1 million fine for environmental damage levied by the State of Wisconsin against Enbridge, a Canadian company using eminent domain in America to force their tar sands pipelines, for damages to wetlands in the state.

Or maybe it was the announcement that the Peace-Athabasca Delta was being named a Biogem: one of the most threatened landscapes in the Americas.

Or maybe it was the recent report showing that those poisonous tailings ponds were leaking into the surrounding water table.

Or maybe it was the resolution from the US Conference of Mayors last summer, challenging the use of tar sands and other high carbon fuels on our city streets and in our city vehicle fleets.

Or maybe it was the growing concern over the scale of the tar sands---two tons of earth removed and six barrels of water fouled for every single barrel of oil that comes out of there. That production sounds unsustainable---and it is---but unfortunately the tar sands sit under an area the size of Florida...yikes.

Or maybe it's a growing recognition that we need to do something about global warming. An alternative fuel made from tar sands that emits three times the CO2 of traditional oil is really not an alternative at all...

Whatever the reason, pity the Albertans.

The world has changed, but they seem to have missed the clean energy economy memo.

They've made it clear that the provincial and federal officials will be bringing a full court press when President Obama makes the traditional first foreign visit for a new president to Canada next week. But the administration has already made a number of exciting low carbon decisions that would imply tar sands are not going to play a significant role in America's energy mix.

The neighbors to the north will push the tar sands as our most secure energy option. But there is a growing recognition that energy security and national security are not the same thing. In fact, you cannot have national security without securing the climate.

Oil prices are way down ($40ish per barrel), so things have slowed down around "The Patch" and a number of new infrastructure projects have been shelved. But, despite this week's news of an oil glut in the US, prices won't stay this low for long. As prices move back towards profitability, you can expect the pace of development in Alberta to gear back up.

And while the next boom for the Calgary oil guys probably won't bring the same profits as the glory days of 2008, there is another industry clearly poised for a big year...

The big PR firms in Canada should be excited for 2009.

After all, as tar sands production gears back up---you can expect plenty more galling stories to keep the spinmeisters very busy and very profitable.


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chFeb 16 2009 12:33 PM

Not all Albertans "have missed the clean energy economy memo." Many Albertans are the hardest-working activists on these issues, and their efforts shouldn't be ignored or written off. Much of the highlights you outline above wouldn't have been been possible without the hard work of Albertan environmentalists, and in many cases they led the charge (it was Albertan youth that constructed the tar sands photo display in Poznan, for example).

chFeb 16 2009 12:34 PM

One more administrative note: tailings ponds, as they're called, now cover 130 sq km. of the province (not 30).

Josh MogermanFeb 16 2009 02:30 PM

CH---GREAT points. Thank you!

I was wrong in my miles to km conversion---you are correct, the current (and scary) total is 130 square km covered in the toxic tailing ponds (over 80 square miles). Thanks for correcting that!

And, yes, there has been an extremely vocal and active local effort to deal with the tar sands problem. My comments were directed at the provincial government and not at all meant to diminish the local effort. If we are going to fix this, the local and international efforts must work hand-in-hand. Thankfully, they seem to be doing so, and gaining momentum.


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