Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Tar Sands - S0 Much More Than Greenhouse Gas

In his book Tar Sands, Andrew Nikiforuk presents a thoughtful exploration of the non-environmental consequences the Athabasca mega-boondoggle inflicts on Canada and our democracy. He contends that Ottawa's embrace of bitumen is bringing to our nation the governance we have come to equate with other petro-states - the concentration and corruption of power, secrecy, lapsed regulation and oversight, environmental degradation, corporatism and more.

We don't talk about these things. You'll never hear them pass the lips of our political leadership, government or opposition. The narrative they present is so inaccurate, incomplete and even wilfully misleading as to qualify as genuine sophistry. When they do speak of Athabasca they speak as if talking to children. They blur and obscure, mythologize and simplify, reducing the debate to meaninglessness.

Our leaders won't come out and say this but the Athabasca Tar Sands stand squarely behind Canada's near total inaction on global warming. Bitumen shapes, even directs our environmental policies and party leaders don't even attempt to counter that. You might have imagined the Oil Men were all in Alberta. You might not have imagined that the Oil Men also hold sway on Parliament Hill.

I'm not likely to run into Iggy anytime soon but, if you get a chance, ask him some of these questions:

1. If Canada's entire reserves of natural gas were applied solely to bitumen extraction, how much of the Athabasca fields might be recovered. (about 29%, well less than a third, and that takes every last cubic foot of Canada's natural gas).

2. What price do the Athabasca oil operators pay for water they take from the Athabasca and Peace Rivers? What is the actual value of that water? Why are we massively subsidizing bitumen mining, extraction and processing?

3. How deep is the deepest of the Athabasca tailing ponds? (hint - the wall is 325 feet high and two miles in length) What are the chances that taxpayers will be left to pay for the cleanup? (very high indeed)

4. Are the tailing pond containment walls shifting, deteriorating? At what volumes are the ponds' highly lethal and carcinogenic pathogens leaking into the groundwater and rivers? What happens to Canada's greatest watershed, the MacKenzie, if a major tailing pond fails? What happens to the First Nations peoples of that watershed?

5. Where will we find the massive amounts of energy necessary for the proposed three- to five-fold expansion of the Tar Sands? How many nuclear reactors would be needed and where would they have to be constructed?

6. Even if we were able to meet the Tar Sands energy conundrum to allow the desired expansion, how miniscule a contribution would Athabasca really provide?

7. Does a petro-economy undermine the Canadian dollar and our manufacturing base? (it surely does).

8. What is the Alberta government's wild target for carbon capture and sequestration for the Tar Sands? (a mere 20%) Where are the CCS plants? When will they come on line? Will CCS fields need constant monitoring? (oh they will indeed). For how long? (can you say "forever"?) Who will pay for all those centuries of maintenance, storage and monitoring? (can you say "me"?)

9. In recent years has the Alberta government been so lax in collecting royalties that the province made more revenue from video gaming terminals than from the Tar Sands? (the question answers itself).

You see these are just a few of the questions someone ought to ask Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberal leader damned well ought to be able to correctly answer every one of them. But you see Iggy and the Bay Street boys are jacking you around on this. This isn't a matter of the national economy. It isn't about national unity (c'mon Igs, that's hilarious). It's about short term money and the political clout that buys.

The answers to these questions cast shadows on our notions of Canadian democracy and those who will sell that cheaply out of the public eye.

Get a copy of Nikiforuk's Tar Sands


LMA said...

Another question bothers me as I watch BP play russian roulette trying to kill the wild well, i.e. are the oil companies developing the Tar Sands required to pay for the tremendous economic and health costs associated with spills, leaks when technology fails us? Do they even have a plan to deal with worst case scenarios?

The Mound of Sound said...

LMA, as Nikiforuk opines in "Tar Sands," Big Oil's handmaiden, the Alberta government does require Tar Sands operators to post security totalling a small fraction of the impacts they create, from the outset.

This is a time-honoured thing in Canada's mining industry. Government goes along to get along. Eventually the mine loses commercial viability and closes, the mine operators leave town, and somebody - other than those who've already long left - get handed the bill.