Having spent a few days trying to encourage people to do some small, easy things to make positive changes to for the environment, I think it may be fair to say that, after news over the weekend that the Obama administration will approve the new XL oil pipeline, delivering oil from the tar sands monstrosities in Canada to refineries in Texas, Obama may not be doing his bit. Although thousands of protesters are conducting a two-week long vigil outside the White House, the environmental message seems to have been largely ignored, and on Friday the Guardian reported that the XL pipeline had received the go-ahead. Assistant secretary of state Kerri-Ann Jones tried to absolve the White House of being in any sense responsible for the negative environmental impact the 1,700 mile pipeline is bound to have, insisting: “[t]he sense we have is that the oil sands would be developed and there is not going to be any change in greenhouse gas emissions with the pipeline or without the pipeline because these oil sands will be developed anyway.”
Although I had no intention to write an angry post about the Obama administration and its bad decision, this statement itself has made me rather cross. If Kerri-Ann Jones does not have the sense and intelligence to see that the pipeline will only encourage development in the tar sands, and cement America’s unhealthy dependence on oil, then someone else who can put two and two together should probably have her job. To suggest that building an pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the world’s most carbon hungry citizens won’t have an effect on global warming is absolutely preposterous. Approval of the pipeline is monumentally bad news for the entire planet as tar sands are gargantuan producers of greenhouse gases. Tar sands are so bad, in fact, that in the documentary To The Last Drop environmentalist Bill McKibben said there was ‘no better way to warm the world’.
The tar sand mines in Alberta, Canada, have gradually grown across boreal forest which is, currently, still larger than the Amazon, and home to endangered species as well as a route for migratory birds. The emissions produced by the production of tar sands are equivalent to the entire emissions of Switzerland. In one day, production of tar sands creates greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.34 million cars, and that’s before they have been piped to America, refined – and then burned. One barrel of oil from the tar sands produces 3 times the carbon emitted by oil drilled in Saudi Arabia, or Texas. In To The Last Drop, Dr Tim Flannery points out that resources like the tar sands are available across the globe – so if we all decided to exploit them, as Canada is doing, or to encourage their growth, as the States are, then we could ‘cook the Earth’. Tar sands have been the largest oil supplier to the US since 9/11. During the recession they continued to pump 20 billion dollars a year into the Canadian economy, and are the biggest construction project in the world.
Think tar sands sound bad? Unfortunately, there’s more. During the extraction of the tar sands, for each barrel of Bitumen* created, there also comes a barrel and half of toxic waste. This toxic waste is left in ‘tailing pools’, which are, essentially, sand lined ditches. In the documentary The Dirty Truth, these tailing pools are stated to cover 60km, and can be seen from space. And, of course, they are not safe. In 2008 a flock of migrating ducks mistook a tailing pool for fresh water. 1,600 ducks perished in the toxic sludge. The tailing pools are also on the edge of a great fresh water delta, which, evidence would suggest, they are able to sink into. A few years ago, Dr John O’Connor, resident doctor for Fort Chipewyan, a small town on the edge of lake Athabaska, started investigating what he felt to be an unusually high number of rare cancers in the residents of the town. Years later, investigations by concerned environmentalists have backed up his concerns. The river, once the life blood of the indigenous people of Fort Chipewyan, is now killing them. It now plays host to 13 toxic heavy metals which are byproducts of the tar sands, including arsenic, lead and mercury. The rare types of cancers seen in Fort Chipewyan, some by as much as 7 times the normal rate, are linked to exposure to petroleum products.
Altogether, tar sands embody everything bad about our interest in industry – destroying habitat, eco-systems, threatening endangered species, damaging ecology, threatening indigenous communities, causing death and bringing about climate change. I’m not sure whether it is ironic or typical, therefore, that tar sands are the biggest construction project in the world, covering an area larger than Greece and currently destined to triple by 2020. Tar sands represent what Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, terms ‘ideological pathology’ – a ‘idea that is deadly’. And its success is evidence of corporate consumerism, for, how else would such a product have been able to boom at such a prolific rate, without distance between consumers and the reality – and between business owners and the reality? If the bosses of oil companies operating in Alberta were made to live in Fort Chipewyan for a few years, with their families and their children, you have to suspect they would have some second thoughts about their business, as would the gas guzzling American… As would Obama… Unfortunately, this is not how our modern world works.
It’s been a bad weekend for the environment, but let’s not be all doom and gloom. Thousands of people are still protesting outside of the White House. Over 300 people have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience – and what a form of civil disobedience! Protesting over something that is destroying the planet! I shall still be riding my bike, signing petitions, doing what I can, because I refuse to be a part of the problem. I would also be very surprised if Mr Obama himself felt happy or comfortable with his decision. So, we must keep spreading the word and lending public support to environmental movements. Our leaders may fail to lead sometimes, but they’re never going to succeed if we don’t keep making our message loud and clear.
Visit: http://www.tarsandsaction.org/invitation/ for more information on actions against the pipeline and tar sands.
*Bitumen – variety of natural products that contain hydrocarbons.