Collage of tar sands
Canada has been receiving a well-deserved, mighty black eye around the world in the last week or so as Al Jazeera, the Arab online station now equipped with a full range of sophistication and excellent reporters, has been broadcasting a superb and persuasive film made by Niobe Nicholson and Tom Radford about the Athabasca tar sands.
The programme makes no bones about it: not only is the oil extraction from the tar sands in northern Alberta the biggest construction programme in the world, but it is also “the dirtiest oil project ever known.”
Furthermore, the programme produces a lineup of ridiculous Canadian politicians, from Stephen Harper down to the environment minister of the province of Alberta, who disgrace themselves and their nation by pretending there is absolutely nothing wrong with this project that is almost single-handedly responsible for nullifying all global efforts to reduce the emission of the carbon gases that are so gravely damaging our planet.
Radford recalls on the Al Jazeera website that he made a similar film, Death of a Delta, in 1972 using a hand-cranked Bolex camera, whose subject was the right of the small community of Fort Chipewyan to “to have a voice in the construction of a massive hydroelectric project on the Peace River, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. At stake was not only the survival of the oldest community in Alberta, but the protection of a World Heritage site, the Peace Athabasca Delta, a convergence of migratory flyways and the greatest concentration of waterfowl on the continent. In the David and Goliath struggle that ensued, David won. Water was released from the dam and water levels in the Delta returned to normal. The unique ecology of the region was saved. The town survived.”
Today, that same David, the one thousand native residents of Fort Chipewyan are fighting an even more imposing Goliath, this monstrous development of the tar sands whose “expansion will have an estimated $1.7 trillion impact on the Canadian economy over the coming decades. An area of boreal forest the size of Greece will be affected by industrial activity. Once again the issue is water, but this time it is not just the flow of the river, but the chemicals the current may be carrying downstream from the strip mines and bitumen upgraders. In recent years, according to the Alberta Cancer Board, Fort Chipewyan has experienced an unusually high rate of cancer. Local fishermen are finding growing numbers of deformed fish in their nets.”
Radford’s online notes record that “gripped in a Faustian pact with the American energy consumer, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to protect the dirtiest oil project ever known.”
He produces a string of very calm and factual scientists who have discovered the facts about what is happening, placed those facts before the public, and are challenging the two governments to reveal their own data which has apparently persuaded them that there is nothing unusual occurring, nothing dangerous, in spite of the spike that has been recorded in cancer in the area, and who do not admit that if they were to introduce remedial measures, the cost of them would be so high that the whole operation would cease to make money.
Heaven forbid! Faced with the inexorable logic and honesty of a man like Dr. David Schindler, also a hero of the earlier struggle, the government produced an investigatory board which unequivocally concluded that improvements are needed in the governments’ methods of collecting facts about what is in the Athabasca river and delta. The local natives, led by chief Alan Adam, know that their rights --- constitutionally guaranteed, by the way --- to hunt and trap, and catch fish, have already been nullified because of the pollution of a huge area of the boreal forest in which they have always lived, along with the animals on which they have depended for their living since time immemorial. At a meeting of the chiefs of communities who inhabit the area of the tar sands, and the Athabasca delta --- a World Heritage site --- Chief Adam said bluntly, “If I am standing alone against this, I am going to have to make a deal with these mining interests,” something which, in the context of this whole development, seems unthinkable.
Already thanks to the tar sands, Canada has become the biggest supplier of oil to the United States, and the most chilling statement in the film comes from Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State in the Obama administration, that they have to depend on dirty oil from the Arabian gulf, or on dirty oil frm the Athabasca tar sands. In other words, money is primary; the incessant demands of the modern economy for ceaseless exponential growth, a mantra that is shared by every government on earth, so far as one can tell, must be fed, one way or the other. This is a suicide position.
Never mind the boreal forest; never mind the animal populations that are already under immense pressure; never mind the rights of local native tribes. Give us that oil, Jack, we need it…
Tom Radford is to be congratulated for this movie. Al Jazeera is to be congratulated for screening it every day for nine days on the trot.
And our Canadian politicians have surely been given a warning that they cannot afford to stand at the head of the lineup of people who don’t give a damn about the health of the earth. Something’s gotta give, and Albertans and the rest of it, if we have any say in it, are going to have to face up to what we are doing to the earth.