Fighting the tar sands

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There is growing opposition to the production and use of oil sands — also known as the tar sands — both within Alberta and nationally. The Alberta tar sands are the biggest oil production operation in North America. As a result, Alberta has become an international economic and energy powerhouse. This is a debt-free province with no sales tax and low corporate and personal income tax. However all of this comes with a huge environmental and social cost.

I have opposed the tar sands for years and have gotten into many arguments regarding this issue with friends, family and strangers who are involved in the oil and gas industry. Many of my environmentalist friends have set up blockade demonstrations and have been arrested as a result.

One of the many reasons why I oppose the tar sands is because the crude does not get drilled out of the ground like most oil does. Instead it is trapped in a mixture of sand, soil and clay (known as bitumen) and then huge amounts of energy and water are required to separate the oil from the other substances. The process to extract the oil from bitumen is an intensive process consuming huge amounts of water and natural gas and produces huge amounts of carbon emissions, which go into the atmosphere and waste water known as tailings.

Recently there have been reports that tailings have already leached through their storage barriers thus poisoning habitat and communities downstream along the Athabasca River. Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1,200 people downstream from oil sands operations along the Athabasca River, became infamous for having abnormally high rates of cancers in the blood and lymphatic systems, bile duct and soft tissues of its residents. The Alberta government has been ignoring these concerns for years. Provincial government employees involved in the regulation and enforcement of environmental standards are often ignored by the oil companies.

Over recent years, there is growing opposition to the tar sands. There is international pressure on companies to withdraw and divest from the tar sands. Greenpeace has lead several high profile stunts that have caught media attention. This past summer, volunteers climbed the Calgary Tower to hang a huge banner saying “Separate Oil and State”. In June of this year, the oil company Syncrude was found guilty and was fined $3 million for the deaths of 1,600 ducks that were killed in a Syncrude tailings pond.

After much pressure from activists, aboriginal groups and politicians, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has agreed in principle to pay a visit to Fort Chipewyan to listen to and address the concerns of the neighborhood. There is no word on when this visit will happen but he is already signaling that he will push back the dates, giving me yet another to continue my fight against the tar sands.