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Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Markey to hear directly about tar sands from Canadians

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted September 8, 2010

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Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Markey are in Ottawa for meetings on tar sands tonight and tomorrow.  They arrive in the midst of a firestorm over a heavyweight report released last week linking the tar sands operations with contamination of the Athabasca River watershed. They will have dinner tonight with the Premier of Alberta and then meet tomorrow with representatives of some of Canada’s major environmental groups and with two First Nation Chiefs from the tar sands region. 

The meeting with the environmental and First Nation representatives will be a powerful one.  There is nothing like hearing directly from the people most directly affected, especially from Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.  His people have experienced elevated cancer rates – one death of a young man less than 30 years old – that they attribute to exposure to contaminants moving downstream from the massive operations.  They were vindicated last week when the report undercut the years of Alberta government and industry denial that the giant tar pits and tailings waste ponds are sending toxic metals – like mercury, arsenic, and lead – downstream into the air they breathe and water their children drink.

We expect the Speaker and Chairman Markey to listen carefully to the range of concerns but, as staunch advocates for energy reform and climate change, to ultimately deliver the message that there is growing concern about the impact increased dependence on tar sands oil would have on U.S. clean energy and climate change goals.

Twenty-six U.S. and Canadian environmental groups sent a letter today to the Speaker and Chairman outlining concerns about the tar sands, especially the pending permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline.  This pipeline would lock us into decades of high-carbon fuels and threatens the drinking water for more than 2 million Americans in America’s heartland.  Similar concerns have been expressed recently – letters, detailed comments, and other communications have been sent to Secretary Clinton and other State Department and Department of Transportation officials from:

Why such heightened concern about the pipeline?  The pipeline would pass over the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest sources of US freshwater.  The recent massive spill of nearly a million gallons of oil in Michigan has highlighted concerns about the safety of these overland pipelines; there were serious lags in information about whether bitumen, the dirtier, more toxic form of tar sands oil, was released into the Kalamazoo River. There is also growing concern about the additional pollution from refining bitumen in already polluted communities around the Gulf Coast refineries.

But most importantly, it would make it even more difficult for the U.S. to achieve its goals of making our transportation less dependent on one fuel – oil. In the face of obstacles to approving climate legislation in the U.S. and Canada, holding the line is ever more important. We cannot afford to expand the tar sands.

This underscores that the debate about tar sands oil is our debate as well. As the largest consumer, what the U.S. decides about the merits of increasing our dependence on tar sands oil will have a big impact on Canada and on the U.S. The good news is that we are the only export customer for the foreseeable future, a fact that has not been lost on the Canadian government as legions of lobbyists descend on our state and federal legislatures.

So let’s just hope that the old saying “the customer is always right” proves true again and this meeting will expose how shallow and ineffective Alberta’s PR campaign is when it comes to convincing two of the U.S.’s top energy and environment policy leaders that all is under control.  After all, are those tailing ponds still leaking almost 3 million gallons a day?  Are toxic metals still blowing off the tops of pet coke piles and out of the miles of giant strip mines and downwind to Ft. Chip?  Are millions of birds at risk of perishing as their habitat is fragmented and they fly by the thousands into the giant waste ponds?Dead Ducks in Tailings Pond Small.JPGAccording to the data, the answer is a resounding no, and no sweet talking or “appeals to reason” is going to change that. The damage is just that: unreasonable.

In turn, we trust that the Speaker and Chairman will reiterate their desire to reduce, rather than increase, our Continental dependence on oil, and encourage Canada to join as partners in achieving a future of true energy security – by moving to fuels that are less risky, don’t run out, and don’t come with the massive environmental and human health costs of tar sands extraction.

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Vern SouthardSep 9 2010 09:19 AM

While it is important that we move as a nation and continent (North America) away from dependence on fossil fuels, particularly oil, gasoline derivatives, and diesel fuels, that cannot be done overnight.
It is extremely important to protect our wildlife and wildlife habitat, our aquifers, and the safety of water sources for Native peoples and all citizens of the U.S. and Canada. Right now we need oil as the fleet of cars and trucks that move commerce and personal transport is not primarily using alternative fuels. The jobs that will be lost in Alberta and even in the USA if the tar sands oil extraction and trans shipment is stopped will severely damage an already struggling and slowly rebuilding economy. It is better for the US to enter into an oil energy contract with Canada than with potential enemies in the Middle East or Asia. The economies of Canada and the USA are inextricably entwined and mutually supportive. A reasonable solution would be to continue to extract oil from the tar sands shale and enforce strict environmental controls, while at the same time setting a timetable for planning, creating, and implementing a fossil fuel free future. This roadmap will if followed will create new clean energy related jobs to replace the old fossil fuel based type of jobs. Stopping the pipeline now is not a solution that can be sold in Alberta or the USA. Making a safe, clean, mining, extraction, and trans shipment policy that is jointly monitored and enforced and planning a gradual transition period where we can look forward to phasing out tar sands operations and replacing them with clean energy wind or water power farms or geothermal energy processes makes more sense. It is imperative that the governments of Canada and the USA work closely for a long term solution that is both economically and environmentally sound.
Vern Southard
Fort Myers, Florida

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