The internet's abuzz as President Obama makes his long anticipated across the northern border. Environmentalists have been knawing their knuckles wondering how he's going to handle the issue of tar sands--which Prime Minister Harper is certain to bring up. There's no question that tar sands extraction is a climate catastrophe, or as some would say, "the biggest global warming crime ever seen." Over on Switchboard, NRDC has a whole host of climate and energy experts explaining just how dangerous these tar sands are from a greenhouse gas perspective. And Obama seems to get it, saying in an interview with the CBC on Tuesday:
What we know is that oil sands creates a big carbon footprint. So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is how do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change.
He hedges, though, when following up, and starts talking about the potential for carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make mining the tar sands possible. "I think that it is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal."
Let's gloss over the points that Obama has fallen for the "oil sands" greenwashing PR rhetoric and that CCS won't do squat about any carbon emissions that'll occur once the bitumin is processed and turned into oil, fated to be burned in America's furnaces and cars.
Lost in all the climate talk is the fact that, on the local level, tar sands extraction and processing is one of the greatest social and ecological injustices of our time. Few realize how ugly things have gotten in northen Alberta. Andrew Nikiforuk, writing for OnEarth last year, explained tar sands development like this:
Described by the United Nations Environment Program as one of the world's top "environmental hot spots," the project will eventually transform a boreal forest the size of Florida into an industrial sacrifice zone complete with lakes full of toxic waste and man-made volcanoes spewing out clouds of greenhouse gases.
The impact on local communities, mostly First Nation tribes like the Cree, is nothing short of appalling. Visiting a Cree village and speaking to one of its Elders, Nikiforuk writes, "MacDonald doesn't have much faith that industry or government will reclaim the toxic ponds that surround his home. About 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for mining ends up behind massive tailings dams or dykes...All these ponds contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts, and bitumen." The tailings are leaking into the Athabasca too, poisoning the indiginous fish that locals have long relied on for food.
In some heartbreaking interviews with Canadian tar sands activist MacDonald Stainsby, local residents reveal that cancer rates in their communities are up, wildlife is disappearing, and river levels are dropping constantly. Here's the third in a five part series:
So disturbed by ruin of the region, Alberta's Catholic bishop has written a lengthy letter arguing that the tar sands development "cannot be morally justified."
The local impact is undercovered, and more people should be able see for themselves how grave this social and ecological injust is. Read Nikiforuk's piece, or check out the absolutely astonishing 15-part VBS series "Toxic Alberta," which covers the tar sands from every angle. (Somehow, in this wild media world, Vice is producing better in-depth--and engaging-- environmental journalism than nearly anyone else.)
The climate argument against tar sands development should be enough. But if more people understood the conditions on the ground--and in the towns--in Northern Alberta, the outcry against this dirtiest of fossil fuels would be a lot harder to ignore.
Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has...Ben writes about climate, energy, and sustainability for numerous publications and is the former environment editor at GOOD. He's the author of "The Big Green Apple: Your Guide to Eco-Friendly Living in New York City" and currently lives in Vermont. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.MoreClose
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