by Jim Park
There has been much concern voiced lately over the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (ENGP) which, if built, would traverse northern British Columbia and deliver bitumen to a deepwater tanker terminal at Kitimat, B.C.
Loudest amongst the voices heard are those who oppose the pipeline for a variety of reasons, and make use of the media and public meetings to make their objections known, often in emotion-coloured messages. One message, currently circulating online, shows a video of 10-year old Ta‘Kaiya Blaney from the Sliammon First Nation band in North Vancouver singing a song of protest against ENGP.
The displays of public emotion have drawn some criticism from observers. They note that the people making the emotional responses have no technical knowledge of the issues involved in pipeline projects and cannot provide any useful expertise in reaching a decision as to whether the project should be built or not. In their view, these folks are simply repeating the anxiety that others have put into their minds. The use of a child as a tool to communicate objections to the project is seen as reprehensible and a form of child abuse.
However, for me, when reading or listening to these arguments, what comes to mind is the age-old struggle between the logical mind and the illogical emotions.
People with a scientific background have spent lifetimes approaching challenges and achieving goals using the scientific method: detailed observation, comprehensive and structured data collection, and objective analysis of the facts to reach repeatable conclusions. This is a good thing; it is the tool that helped us to achieve the scientific breakthroughs that created the high standard of living that we enjoy today.
However, those without a scientific background have never gained this tool or learned the discipline required to approach the physical universe from a non-anthropocentric perspective. They approach life from an instinctual, threat/reward-oriented, highly personal level. Some few have managed to harmonize the mental and emotional aspects of themselves, and have gained an inner peace with themselves and the world, in which they try and live a lifestyle of creative harmony with the natural and artificial worlds around them. To me, these are the wise ones.
As we all know, facts can be twisted into any shape that is desirable depending on the viewpoint of those paying our wages. Studies can be conducted and facts collected and analyzed about a given topic ad infinitum. This is how and why those interests opposed to the anthropogenic causes of climate change can keep delaying concrete action; introduce some doubt and uncertainty, whether factual or not, and science dictates that further analysis is required in order to “prove” the hypothesis one way or another, and nothing changes.
The danger of always approaching the complexities of life through scientific eyes is that we cut ourselves off from that which is being studied. We have to disconnect – that is what the objectivity of the scientific method is all about. The observer and the observed. The more distant we can be from that which is being studied, the better. And it is here where the underlying problem resides. When we try and use logic to explain everything, we don’t feel an emotional connection to anything.
Many of those who oppose the ENGP have experienced a strong emotional connection with the natural world, it’s beauty and complexity. They are the ones who can truly say “Mother Nature is hurting!” because they FEEL that hurt, whether it be the destruction of biomes, pollution of the earth, air and water, or the extinction of species. For many scientists, economic interests and politicians, to “feel” is anathema. As such, they tend to denigrate the weight and value of the opinions of those who “feel”.
Is it reprehensible to use children as tools to “communicate one’s objection to a project”? I find it reprehensible to use children as sexual objects as in the TV show “Tiaras and Toddlers“. I find it reprehensible to use animals in advertising. I find trophy hunting reprehensible. I find factory farming to be reprehensible. I find war and poverty and ignorance to be reprehensible. It is reprehensible what is being done to indigenous people downstream from the Alberta tar sands: polluted rivers with deformed, ulcer-ridden fish, a dramatic increase in cancers associated with petrochemicals. Sorry, can’t act on taking remedial action to improve living conditions for these people because the facts aren’t all in yet; there are conflicting studies. And while this endless argument goes on, people are getting sick.
In the final analysis it will be the children who inherit the world that we have created for them; they have to live in it. We’ll all be dead and buried in the not too distant future, and won’t have to worry about the “mistakes” that we have made, but they will be in their prime, and have to deal with the world that we have left them based on the decisions being made today.
To desire a natural and bounteous environment in which to grow up, have a family, and live a simpler yet fulfilling life in harmony with your surroundings is a pretty sane goal to me. To respect and love life in all its diversity, and to kill only for sustenance where that which is killed is wholesome and chemical-free is a worthy goal on my book. How much “technical knowledge” does a parent need to raise a healthy, well-adjusted child? How much “technical knowledge” is needed to simply say that I don’t want to take chances on my children’s future and don’t want potentially toxic pipelines in my backyard?
When it comes to taking action to prevent further degradation of our planet, and to nurture the recovery of the natural world for future generations, then I believe children should stand with their loved ones on the front lines. If the emotional impact of seeing and hearing the voices of children will hasten the speed of positive change in our world, then they have my blessing.
Whatever our individual beliefs as to the percentages between natural cyclical and human-induced causes for climate change, the natural world is very sick and changing rapidly and we had better start working together to heal it and identify remedial options. This can best be done by acknowledging both the logical and emotional components of the problems that we face and finding holistic solutions for each of them.
The Northern Gateway Pipeline is pitting U.S. interests against the Chinese, and Alberta against B.C. Five oil sands companies have revealed themselves as supporters of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, lending their names to a massive infrastructure proposal that has stirred intense opposition in Western Canada. Cenovus Energy Inc., MEG Energy Corp., Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Marketing Inc. (a subsidiary of Suncor Energy Inc.),and Total E&P Canada (the domestic arm of French giant Total SA) have each spent money to help develop the $6.6-billion pipeline which, if built, will funnel massive volumes of oil sands crude to the West Coast for export to California and Asia. Gateway’s financial backers also include Chinese state-owned energy company Sinopec. And there are others who have yet to step forward. Market sources have said they believe China National Petroleum Corp. also holds an interest in Gateway. Sinochem Group, another Chinese energy firm, is also believed to support Gateway.
Against this backdrop a story is emerging that Canadian environmental groups receive some funding from US charities. Canada’s Conservative government is using this as a “talking point” against the swelling opposition to the Gateway pipeline and tar sand development. The government seems to be taking a very narrow view as to what constitutes the “national interest.”
No one can deny that billions of dollars of foreign investment will impact the Canadian economy. It seems easier, however, for the government to deny that billions more tonnes of greenhouse gases will impact the Canadian (and global) climate. Despite the petro-dollar funded denials it remains an “inconvenient truth” that we are mortgaging the health and welfare of our children and grandchildren in the rush to exploit the last remaining fossil fuel deposits and get them to market across BC’s pristine northern forests and rivers.
Oil and gas geologists know very well what global warming is doing to arctic ice and northern tundra. They drive through the infestation of warm weather pine beetles in BC’s boreal forests. For them it is merely the cost of doing business, knowing that they are not even being asked to pay those costs. Those costs are being passed on to our children in the form of catastrophic climate changes now occurring faster than the IPCC’s worst predictions.
Environmentalists are raising the alarm because the facts are truly alarming. This is much more than merely an environmental or economic issue. It is an eldership issue of survival. Elders have understood for generations the dangers of reckless exploitation and resource exhaustion. Those cultures that heed the warnings survive and thrive while those that don’t disappear into the mists of history. The difference now is that the impacts are global and there are no more uncharted territories to shelter the survivors.
Ecology has no national interest. Iroquois Law is often described as decreeing that decisions must consider seven generations. Sadly, governments are bound instead to election cycles and oil companies are bound to balance sheets and annual reports. Eldership transcends those limitations and never was there a greater need for elders to be heard. Canada’s national interest is a sustainable future for its next generation. Who will speak for them?
by Stan Hirst
“Stop the tar sands!” says my fellow Elder. Then he thumps the table. “We should make that the key objective of the Suzuki Elders.”
It’s easy to see why thinking people get upset over the tar sands, or Alberta Oil Sands as they are more safely referred to east of the Rockies. More than 600 km2 of boreal forest (roughly the same area as greater Vancouver) have already been cleared, mined or otherwise very significantly disturbed. One-fifth of Alberta’s land area is currently under lease for further such bitumen mining and extraction.
The gunk-like bitumen makes up only 10% of the excavated tar sand, so something like two tons of sand must be processed to get one barrel of oil. About 40% of the bitumen resource is beyond the reach of conventional excavation, so pressurized steam injection is needed to force the stuff to the surface. The necessary steam generation chews up 34 m3 of natural gas to produce one barrel of bitumen from in situ projects and about 20 m3 in the case ofintegrated projects, so daily use of purchased gas in the oil sands amounts to something like 21 million m3. Average emissions for oil sands extraction and upgrading (per barrel) are 3.2 to 4.5 times that for conventional crude oil.
Water requirements for steam and other uses range from 2 to 4.5 m3 of water per each cubic metre of synthetic crude oil extracted in a mining operation. The companies in the oil sands are licensed to withdraw 650 million m2 of water from the Athabasca River annually (equal to seven times the annual water needs of city the size of Edmonton). Oil sands operations currently recycle and reuse about ¾ of the water extracted from the Athabasca River.
An average of 1.5 barrels of a processed mix of water, sand, silt, clay, contaminants and unrecovered hydrocarbons is generated for every barrel of bitumen produced, and 200 million litres of this sludge is dumped into tailings ponds every day. The area of the ponds is currently in excess of 130 km2 (about the total area of Richmond B.C.) with a projected increase to 310 km2 by 2040. Tailings pond water is acutely toxic to aquatic organisms and mammals and contains substances such as naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, mercury and other trace metals, some of which are toxic to humans while others are known carcinogens.
Unhappy situation? The future is scarier. China badly needs oil to keep its huge economy powering forward and has now invested $4.7 billion in Syncrude. China will presumably want its share of the crude oil at the end of a pipeline in Kitimat B.C.
Are the oil sands sustainable in the long term? Yes, says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The oil sands are the 2nd largest crude oil reserve in the world, and supply the U.S. with 20% of its crude oil. This proportion can only increase as Saudi Arabia and the Middle East run out of easy oil and Venezuela and the rest of the producers get ever shirtier with our southern neighbours. World surplus oil production capacity will disappear in the next five years, and the global shortfall by 2015 could reach 10 million barrels per day. Biomass is not a substitute for oil in most sectors because of low photosynthetic efficiency (Brazil, the world leader in biomass energy production, burns up just 1/3 barrel of ethanol but 4½ barrels of oil per person annually). Solar and other energy sources are a long way from replacing oil as the main driver of the transportation sector. Current mining and extraction operations affect less than ½ percent of the total oil sand area, so there is a lot more gunk out there to be dug up and processed.
Sustainable? No, say the greens. The current annual CO2 emissions from all this mining and refining are something like 40 million tonnes which is currently 5% of the Canadian total. This level of CO2 output will obviously increase if plans for oil sands expansion are implemented. To keep emissions down to levels consistent with Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction targets, very expensive and untested proposals for carbon capture and storage will need to be implemented. The tailings ponds stand accused of being leaky, to the tune of 11 million litres of contaminated water per day. Toxic and carcinogenic compounds from the tailings and emissions are contaminating surrounding water and areas and are suspected of causing cancer in local communities. Wildlife, especially waterfowl, are heavily impacted by oil sand operations and tailings disposal. By 2020 the projected water use in the oil sands will be an estimated 45 m3/s which is nearly half the Athabasca River’s low winter flow during eight of the years since 1980 and in every year since 1999. The Peace-Athabasca Delta downstream of the oil sands is already exhibiting negative effects of declining water supply from climate change and the impacts of the upstream Bennett Dam in B.C.
Naturally, none of this is acceptable. The evidence mounts daily that current oil sand operations are simply pushing the envelope too far and too close to allowable and acceptable limits in the natural and human ecosystem – too many emissions, too much danger to downstream human communities, too many ecological impacts, too great a drain on dwindling water resources. So what we should be doing is insisting, absolutely, that whatever they produce be churned out with full consideration to the ecosystem and the local communities, and with full reckoning of the costs thereof.
Let’s be honest – the oil people up in Fort McMurray are not munching tons of sand just to annoy a few of us down here. They are simply supplying a commodity which is in huge demand by society. They didn’t create the demand, they’re just good at providing what society wants, i.e. cheap fossil fuel to burn in gridlocked Escalades standing on the Santa Monica freeway.
Stop the tar sands? Not likely. The current value of the plant alone exceeds $90 billion. Billions of dollars accrue to tax revenues from the oil sands every year, and 60% go into federal coffers. The Alberta coffers currently take in almost $2 billion annually from royalties. This money is the source of many federal and provincial programs and services in infrastructure, health and education. One in every 15 Albertans works for the energy industry, Take a stroll around Calgary and check out the fine recreational facilities and art museums funded by Big Oil. You had better go tell those folks you want to shut them down, fellow Elder, because I sure ain’t.
The long-term solution to this quandary is not to storm the bastion or the tailings ponds or whatever. It’s much duller, more difficult and highly contentious (sort of Elder-ish). In other words, it’s a matter of economics and politics. Fossil fuels are simply too cheap to discourage the present profligate consumption and the associated high rate of oil production from sources such as the oil sands. Moreover, production from the oil sands is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer. The full costs of the negative consequences of production, especially the ones difficult to quantify (e.g. higher cancer rates in local people) are never costed into the production equation. So two approaches immediately present themselves: make oil energy costs totally realistic though elimination of subsidies, and level the playing field through the imposition of carbon taxes. B.C. has already demonstrated that the latter are not necessarily politically unacceptable.
The objective, fellow Elders, is not to stop the tar sands, it’s to make them redundant.
Now, the next job is to convince the other ten million Elders of this…….