Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Environmental Disaster Unfolding

In R.Richardson, Reviews on August 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil & the future of a continent by Andrew Nikiforuk

Non-fiction/politics. Review by Ruth Richardson

A year ago the Clarion drew attention to the environmental disaster that is unfolding through the exploitation of the tar sands of northern Alberta. These sands are the Earth’s last great remaining oil field. Because the oil is in the form of bitumen its extraction is far more environmentally damaging than conventional drilling. But Alberta has become the richest of the Canadian provinces, and, it seems, profit outweighs all other considerations.

Now a passionate and forcefully argued book, Tar Sands by Andrew Nikiforuk has been published which reveals the scale of the enterprise.

Nikiforuk’s book begins with a “Declaration of a political emergency” – twenty two points that lead to the conclusion that our dependence on fossil fuel must be transformed. The chapters that follow cover the environmental, social and political effects of the tar sands development.

The scale of the operation is huge. Virtually every major oil company has a stake in it and investment now totals about $200 billion. The zone now being exploited is 54,000 square miles, a quarter of the land mass of Alberta. Many countries have an interest in the operation, but 60 per cent of the cash comes from south of the Canadian border. The US, of course, is keen to exploit a source of oil close to home and to minimise their dependence on the Middle East.

Nikiforuk paints a chilling picture of the landscape of the tar sands operation – “more hellish than an Appalachian coal field.” Thousands of trees are felled, acres of soil removed and wetlands drained. The impact on wild life can be imagined.

This is just the start of the environmental cost. Huge amounts of water are needed to wash the dirty sands, and this is taken from the Athabasca River, resulting in widespread pollution. In fact the whole Mackenzie River basin, which protects and produces one fifth of Canada’s fresh water, is affected. Nikiforuk reckons that the Alberta Government has failed completely to deal with the water issue. A monitoring programme, RAMP, was set up by the industry and government in 1997. It receives funding from no less than ten oil companies, so not surprisingly the reports it produces suggest no cause for concern. Independent experts who reviewed RAMP’s work had serious concerns about the quality of its monitoring.

Another result of the oil extraction is the construction of huge toxic ponds along the Athabasca River. They are made from earth stripped from the top of open-pit mines and rise 270 feet above the forest floor. Of a size which can be seen by astronauts in space, they now hold four decades worth of contaminated water, sand and bitumen. These tar ponds cover 23 square miles of forest, and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of ducks, geese and other water birds as well as moose, deer and beaver. And they leak!

Fort McMurray was a mining community of 25,000 in the 1970s. It sits at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers, just south of the main tar sands. The town used to be surrounded by forest but tar sand leases will soon surround its neighbourhoods. Its population is now swelled by temporary workers from China, Mexico and Croatia. Half the general workforce hails from Newfoundland and the maritime provinces, the poorest parts of Canada.

Fort McMurray’s infrastructure – medical care, education, social services – struggles to cope with this huge influx. On a more mundane level, it takes 40 minutes to get a cut of coffee in Tim Horton’s and queues at banks on pay day can be sixty people long. The term “Gillette Syndrome” has been coined to describe the social wreckage caused by this sort of boom development.

It leaves a legacy of disaffection, drunkenness, divorce and social breakdown. Nikiforuk quotes at length one resident of Calgary who has watched the “human eco-system wastage” escalate year by year. “Each day,” he says, “on my way to work I pass another homeless man ruined by crack cocaine or bad bitumen luck… Avarice fills the Calgary air and most people run like hamsters on a treadmill.”

In case this books generates a despondent air, Nikiforuk’s final chapter lists “twelve steps to Energy Sanity”, to get us headed in the right direction. The first is to recognise that cheap oil is a relic of the past. Nikiforuk leads us through economic and political reforms that would regulate and slow down oil extraction. An important step is to re-localise food production. Taxpayers’ money should be directed towards funding new railways, and instead of building more highways, money should be spent on planning walkable communities.

In short we should use what oil remains sparingly, all the while working towards the development of renewable energy sourcs.

Nikiforuk’s final point is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be re-negotiated. Canada should not be beholden to the demands of its greedy neighbour to the south.

Tar Sands is a hard-hitting and readable book, with plenty of mind-blowing statistics. All who are concerned about our oil-dependent society should read it. This megaproject which is growing year by year has not received the publicity it should in the wider world.

IBSN 978-1-55365-407-0 – published in Canada by Greystone Books in association with the David Suzuki Foundation


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