But don’t we need oil?
The tar sands are a symbol of the crossroads humanity stands at – do we continue pursuing ever-more polluting, expensive and difficult-to-extract sources of oil to maintain our addiction, or do we begin to make the transition away from oil dependence and towards a sustainable future? We know alternatives exist, but often the facts and figures that back this up are inaccessible to the public.
By allowing companies to insist that we ‘need’ oil, we are letting the pro-oil lobby dominate the debate, prioritising their profits over genuine solutions. To be sure, we can’t just cut off the supply of oil overnight. But given most of the easily extractable oil is gone, and if we were to extract all the oil in the tar sands it would be impossible to stabilize our climate, the only option is to move away from oil altogether as quickly as possible.
So what are all these alternatives?
Here’s one: greatly improved public transport networks, reductions in car and aeroplane use amongst the wealthiest populations, a shift away from chemical agriculture towards traditional/organic methods, and the use of renewable electricity, waste biogas, and limited small-scale sustainable fuel crops for transport fuel. Increasingly democratised energy production could see the end of governments and industry colluding to cause high prices and fuel poverty. See more ideas from Zero Carbon Britain and New Internationalist’s Zero Carbon World edition.
We’re in a recession, isn’t the tar sands industry good for Canada’s economy?
Not as good as you would think. While the oil barons are seeing dollar signs, manufacturing industries in Canada’s east are suffering. This is a form of Dutch Disease, where the dollar is so linked to the price of oil that Canada struggles to sell its other goods internationally as they become too expensive. So the wealth stays concentrated in Alberta for the most part, leaving Eastern Canada ‘freezing in the dark’ as Gordon Laxer put it dramatically. However, despite Alberta’s cities boasting the highest wages in Canada, they also have a large share of social and economic problems, and inequality. Many of the jobs are being given to temporary migrant workers, and the First Nations communities on the front-line of the developments often live in conditions comparable to much poorer countries.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims the tar sands will be a money-maker for the whole country, consistent with his aim to turn Canada into an ‘energy superpower’. From his perspective, Canada is so lucky to have this wealth on its doorstep that failing to develop it, despite the devastating effects it is having on Canada’s own people and lands, would be downright irresponsible.
And he might get away with these views unchecked if it weren’t for climate change. The world simply cannot afford for all of Canada’s tar sands to be dug up and burnt, and so the impetus is on Canada to find a new way of running its economy. Investing in green technologies will always seem unappealing to governments in bed with oil companies, but there is extensive research available into the most successful ways to transition to a green economy without extensive job loss. It’s just that the government chooses to ignore it.
Can’t we make the tar sands more environmentally-friendly?
In the timeframe we have to avert climate change – five years, according to the IEA – there is no feasible technology to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands to a safe level. The Canadian government often touts Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as the solution, but this technology is incredibly expensive, would only be able to capture approximately 10% of the tar sands’ emissions, and would not be ready to implement for 20-40 years – in other words, it’s of no use at all. Even if CCS was ever implemented, it wouldn’t stop the downstream emissions caused by burning tar sands oil in trucks and cars and planes, which according to NASA scientist James Hansen, would itself be enough to singlehandedly cause irreversible climate change.
Tar sands enthusiasts often cite in situ tar sands extraction as a solution to the local damage being done to the boreal forest. Yet despite involving less deforestation, in situ production covers a much larger area than mining operations, and fragments ecosystems in a way that is still deeply disruptive to wildlife habitats. Contaminated waste is still produced, but stored under rather than above ground. And the thrilling paradox is that this so-called ‘cleaner’ extraction technology produces on average 2.5 times more greenhouse gases than tar sands surface mining.
Even if the environmental impact of the tar sands could be mitigated by a few percentage points, the effect would be immediately counteracted by the vast increase of operational tar sands projects the government has up its sleeve. So far, only about 4% of the recoverable tar sands reserves have been exploited. Can you even imagine what will happen if we get near 100%?
Isn’t tar sands oil more ethical than Saudi Arabian oil?
There is nothing ethical about Canada’s tar sands development. Tar sands exploitation bulldozes lands, lives and livelihoods. The Canadian government’s behaviour violates aboriginal treaty rights, and defies the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.
The farcical concept of ‘ethical oil’ has been created by right-wing oil pundits working to promote the tar sands industry by discrediting the anti-tar sands campaign. Its arguments are paper-thin. The ultimate, and most ethical, goal should be to rely on neither Saudi Arabian nor Canadian oil, but to transition away from oil altogether. Tar sands oil does not have a place in a world rapidly reaching the brink of irreversible climate change. How is it ethical to put the lives of millions at stake for the short term profits of Canada’s oil elite?