Monday, July 12, 2010

Why Canada Is In Desperate Need of Fresh Leadership

No matter where one lives, people face many problems - social, economic, environmental, security problems, the list goes on and we all have them. It is precisely because we have to face these challenges collectively that we maintain political structures, governments in all their varying forms.

Now we hope, today rather cynically, that our governments will be representative. We hope they'll honestly and faithfully represent our interests, at least attempting to balance our individual interests with our collective interests while accommodating the interests of others - corporations, other countries and so on. We have so many interests we require levels of government - municipal, provincial, federal - that we hope will all represent our interests at the appropriate level.

Yet politicians fail us, cease to represent us, when, in their own interests they construe the problems and challenges that beset us as primarily political issues. I can think of no more disturbing example of this than the way in which our federal politicians treat the Athabasca Tar Sands. Here's a clue. They can't even bring themselves to say "tar." To them it's the Athabasca Oil Sands as though the fossil fuel industry was actually pumping oil instead of mining the bitumen/sand/clay sludge. There's a reason they call the operator SynCrude, not just "crude." In effect, the first word that passes their lips is a lie, a deliberate lie that serves as the foundation for an elaborate construct of lies required to mask or trivialize the risks in order to frame the problem as a political issue.

As we may well discover in the not too distant future, Athabasca is a wildly out of control environmental catastrophe or collection of looming catastrophes. Yet how many of our supposed leaders merely pay lip service to the problems? Oh yes, we must get those carbon emissions under control. Yes, we must do something about the water concerns. They're bullshitting you and me. Yes we must do what exactly? Who must do it? By when must it be done? Who is to pay for whatever must be done? Who is to compensate those who are already suffering the fallout? What if it's not done? What then? These so called leaders spend less time addressing any of these questions than I just spent writing them. Does that tell you anything?

It tells me that there are several aspects of the Tar Sands development that are so awful, so intractable that they can't be addressed by political leaders. They're mentioned in the most simplistic terms, dismissively, in passing. In the same breath in which they're uttered the politician moves on to another subject. Yet every time they do that, they speak volumes if only you're listening.

To understand that these passing remarks are a disingenuous sop, a political contrivance, you have to learn more about the Tar Sands than our political leaders want you to know. They don't want to get involved in a discussion about the litany of environmental catastrophes building in Athabasca and, trust me, greenhouse gas emissions are just one of several and not the worst by any means.

Our political elite would rather you didn't read Marsden's indictment of Alberta's oil and gas industry, Stupid to the Last Drop, or Andrew Nikiforuk's excellent, Tar Sands, Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, or Maude Barlow's Blue Covenant, or Monbiot's Heat or Jarred Diamond's Collapse or any of the dozens of well researched, well annotated books, reports and studies that shine a glaring light on Athabasca. They don't want you thinking of the Athabasca and Peace Rivers as feeding into and thereby threatening Canada's largest watershed, the world's third largest, the MacKenzie before wending their way into the Arctic Ocean. They don't want you to trouble your gentle mind with information about the toxins brought to the surface along with the bitumen sludge - the carcinogens, the heavy metals - or the rates at which they leak/leech into the groundwater. They would rather not have you dwell on the industry's rapacious consumption of our limited reserves of conventional natural gas used to generate steam to liquify sludge so that it can then be pumped to the surface. SAGD? Don't even ask. They don't want you to look too closely at the Athabasca "tailing ponds" many of them lining the banks of the Athabasca itself. These things are eye openers that serve as an immensely powerful indictment of the Tar Sands, the Fossil Fuelers, and the the cheap hucksters and fixers in high political office who, at every turn, place Big Oil's whim above the interests of Canada and the Canadian people.

With the ascendancy of the new economic superpowers - China, India, Brazil and, to some extent, Russia, we're faced with a world in which there's a burgeoning demand for a strategic resource that's already in decline - conventional crude oil. That has already sent us chasing Option "B" - unconventional oil such as tar sands, shale oil and deepwater reserves. Unconventional oil is considerably more expensive because it's invariably much harder to extract and process, much harder and vastly more dangerous. Whether it's drilling by remote control into the deep seabed or extracting tar and countless thousands of tons of associated toxins once safely buried deep below the surface, it's all high risk and potentially devastating.

It's ironic that the controversy over the Tar Sands raises the hackles of so many Albertans who have virtually nothing to do with the Oil Patch. The ironies are multifold. It's their environment that will suffer the most and just keep suffering decades, even centuries after the last barrel of commercially viable bitumen has been taken from Athabasca and Big Oil has moved on. Those in the south usually don't understand that they're not really immune to what's happening in the north. They don't grasp how climate change will impact their already limited freshwater resources and they're facing the devastation of their own groundwater reserves by the shale "fraccing" industry. Big Oil took'em dancing, bought'em a few drinks and now it has its hand down their pants all while their political guardians count their bucks and look the other way. And we used to think it was funny how the Manhattan natives were duped out of their lands with beads and trinkets.

I want to share with you just a few things I've discovered about the Tar Sands that you'll never hear mentioned by Harper or Ignatieff or Layton. Maybe when I'm done you'll ask yourself why not?

Water. Virtual water. That's water exhausted in the production of an export. It's water lost to the producing nation, water than might as well be treated as if it had been exported. Athabasca produces a million barrels of bitumen a day which means that, even with enhanced recycling, the Tar Sands virtually export three million barrels of water every day.

But of course we really don't export that water. It's far too toxic to be allowed into the states even if that option was economically viable and it's not. So they get the oil, we get the waste water. Some producers such as Syncrude now manage to recycle their water up to eighteen times. That really does cut down on their freshwater consumption but the downside is that when that exhausted water finally does reach the tailing ponds, it carries many times higher levels of toxins and carcinogens than less recycled water. There's less of it but it's far more lethal.

Let's talk about tailing ponds, the reservoirs where the toxic sludge is held. When implemented, the engineers believed the "tailings" - sand, clay, leftover bitumen and the associated heavy metals and toxins would settle to the bottom in a few years leaving water that could be rehabilitated. Turns out they were wrong. Now it's looking increasingly likely that settling could take centuries, possibly a millennium, and even then - who knows?

"Ponds" now there's about as pastoral a word as you can find. Think Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, think Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond. Think again. Think instead of China's Three Gorges Dam which is poised to overtake the Athabasca tailing ponds as the planet's largest man made reservoir. When you visualize a pond, do you form a mental image of placid waters held back by an earthen dam more than 300-feet in height? That's 325 feet to be exact, grown somewhat from the 40-feet initially thought necessary by the engineers who designed it. Try to picture an earthen berm that's as high as a 30-story building and stretches for two miles. Now can you understand how Athabasca's tailing ponds are visible to the naked eye from the space shuttle? Now imagine those earthen containment berms shifting, actually moving, and constantly degrading.

There are two especially nasty carcinogens in Athabasca pond tailings - polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and napthenic acids. The US EPA found that most napthenic acids produce skin cancers in any creatures exposed to them. Napthenic acids are sometimes extracted from oil to produce wood preservatives and fungicides. They also kill fish and most aquatic life on contact. This toxic witches brew is currently leaking back into the Athabasca river at a volume of 18-gallons per second. That's 18-gallons of concentrated, lethal toxins every second. That's 86,400 X 18-gallons of raw, carcinogenic toxin each and every day. One million, five hundred fifty thousand, two hundred gallons per day.

Now about that 300 foot plus wall. It's experiencing "deformation creep." Tailing ponds expert Dr. Norbert Morgenstern describes deformation creep as movement in a dam's foundation. Back when he was working for the European Union, Morganstern described tailing pond reliability as, "among the lowest of earth structures" and warned that "a well-intentioned corporation employing apparently well-qualified consultants is not adequate insurance against serious incidents." Since his EU days Morganstern has become one of those consultants himself - in Alberta - and doesn't think any of his conclusions apply to Alberta's ponds.

Of course what could go wrong? A lot. Nikiforuk writes:

"Engineers and ecologists agree that the tailing ponds pose a substantial risk to Canada's largest river basin. 'The longer the tailings sit there, the more likely there will be a major weather event and a big dyke failure,' predicts Bruce Peachey of New Paradigm Engineering. 'If any of those [tailing ponds]= were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez,' adds the University of Alberta's [eminent hydrologist] David Schindler. (the Valdez released about eleven million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. ...PAH concentrations alone in the tar ponds represent about three thousand Valdezes.)"

This is just a glimpse at the tailing ponds nightmare and it's going to get worse, much worse. After the most easily extracted bitumen is exhausted it's going to become even harder, and much more water and natural gas intensive, to go after the rest. Recycle as they must, the Tar Sands developments will be producing far more, vastly more toxic waste water over the next two decades. Is it any wonder that politicians of flimsy integrity avoid talking about this?

I can't begin to address here the other environmental calamities spawned by the Athabasca Tar Sands - the depletion of freshwater and natural gas reserves, the acid rain that sweeps into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, provincial and federal governments that rubber stamp industry approvals and fail to maintain even rudimentary monitoring of the environmental impacts of the Tar Sands and so much more.

The tragedy is that we are forced to rely entirely on entirely unreliable people to represent our interests and our nation's interests and to act responsibly to redress potential calamity before it can happen. We have to rely on self-serving political reprobates like Harper and Ignatieff so utterly devoid of the decency and integrity as to treat Athabasca as anything more than a political issue to be weighed on political costs and advantages.

Michael Ignatieff proclaims the Athabasca Tar Sands the beating heart of the Canadian economy for the 21st century and a veritable key to national unity. That's the talk of a craven hack who puts his personal political fortunes in direct conflict with the welfare of the nation and people he pleads to be allowed to lead. So long as this toxic mentality prevails, Ignatieff is not fit to lead the Liberal Party of Canada and the Liberals are not fit to govern our country. It's that plain.


WILLY said...

Somehow, the choices offered in your rating system, Funny, Interesting & Cool, just don't apply to this post. Horrifying, terrifying & hopeless would be better options. Excellent post.

The Mound of Sound said...

Willy I really tried not to impart hopelessness although I can understand it coming off that way. I wrote this item five times, five different ways before posting hoping that it might encourage readers to delve further into this themselves not so much for the sake of Alberta and Canada's wretched environmental record but to illustrate the greater problem with the malignancy of our post-war leadership models and the threat that presents to our country in dealing with challenges and threats of previously unimagineable proportions that will increasingly confront our country during the coming decades.

We need a new model, a new ethos, a new political philosophy because, bad as what's coming our way, Canada is but one of a very few nations that will retain several viable options, opportunities, blessings if you're so inclined, during this century. But those advantages and options will quickly enough slip through our fingers if we cling to outmoded leadership models. That's what I meant when I wrote that we're consigned to rely entirely on entirely unreliable leaders. We are - and that's all we'll get - until we demand better.

We need a new philosophy something exemplified in Jarred's book "Collapse." He makes a compelling argument that we face a host of existential threats running the gamut from resource exhaustion to species extinction, deforestation to desertification, global warming to nuclear proliferation, air/soil and water contamination and more. Each of these we must address but Diamond points out that we stand no chance of resolving any of them without resolving them all. They're all inter-related, enmeshed, entwined - with us and the way we live. We have to change, we have to be willing to change the way we live. We cannot make the world live in harmony with man so man has reached the point where we either must learn to live in harmony, within the limits defined by our very finite biosphere, or try to live without it, a sucker's bet if there ever was one.

This year mankind consumed the planet's entire annual supply of renewables by mid-October. In three years we'd shifted the calendar by two weeks. The rest of the year we get by only by consuming our seed grain. In the process we're devastating our forests, exhausting our farmland, collapsing global fisheries. That, my friend, is sheer madness, writ large.

19th century leadership lashed to almost laughable notions about perpetual growth and prosperity will only serve to betray us - or at least our children and grandchildren - in the end.

Most of these problems didn't come to the fore until the 70's but they really only arrived in the public conscience during the past decade. In the intervening years the very best solutions slipped through our fingers. Today's "best" solutions aren't nearly as good, not remotely as disruptive even painful. But they're less disruptive, less painful than the even narrower options that will be available to us ten or twenty years hence. That's why I contend that people like Ignatieff, who might have been perfectly acceptable even a generation ago, are no longer fit to lead our country. We have to break from them and their 19th century notions of governance and partisanship. We cannot afford them any longer.

The Mound of Sound said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The problem is not ignorance but selfishness. People are all in favour of cleaning up the environment - as long as they don't have to pay more at the gas pump. Albertans favour environmentalism - as long as it doesn't involve a dip in provincial royalties or a loss of jobs. The many childless Canadians are more focused on their lifestyles than about the future they are bequeathing to other people's children and grandchildren.
As for political leadership, the fate of Stephan Dion says it all. Me triumphed over we. Tax cuts over paying to clean up our messes. The immediate present over the future. Altruism lost. Hedonism won. John Kennedy's inauguration speech, inspirational to my generation, would be mocked today as socialism.

The Mound of Sound said...

I understand everything you write Anon but you're giving up too quickly. We need more people with your grasp to become mobilized to effect the changes our country and our people ultimately cannot live without. I've always been an outsider, aloof and therefore always, in ways suitable to me, able to cast blame and shirk responsibility. As a publicly brash but privately intensely shy person that's been a double-edged sword. Yet today I find I can no longer be a lurker. I have lost faith in my natural party and wrestle with taking my dissent to the Greens or returning to the Liberals to carry the fight within.

I can say that the partisan crap I read from many of the Liberal "faithful" on these blogs is greatly discouraging to my assessment of working within the party.

Fish Ponds said...

I can't read the post, but comments shows that you have done a nice job for sharing the quality post with the viewers of this blog.