Tar Sands: Environmental Nightmare, Ethical Quagmire

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In Canada’s tar sands, oil is extracted from the earth in a destructive, laborious, energy-sucking process that makes the end product one of the dirtiest forms of oil. It leaves behind a denuded landscape and is blamed for a host of ills, including cancer, in local people. The industry also employs many people and fills a need: Our insatiable thirst for energy.

Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark journeys to the heart of tar sands country in Northern Alberta, wrestles with thorny ethical dilemmas, and comes away with a stark insight:

In the simplest language, the debate over the morality of the tar sands comes down to a plain choice of who and what we are willing to destroy.

Mark reveals that we may end up destroying people like Marlene and Mike Orr, two residents of the mostly indigenous residents of Fort McKay, Alberta, who became whistleblowers when they spoke out against a dangerous mining waste disposal pond–and now fear the consequences of doing so. For as Mark points out, “There is not a person [in Fort McKay] who doesn’t understand that without the multibillion-dollar oil sands industry they would likely would have no likelihood at all.”

Marlene Orr describes to Mark some of the contradictions in play:

“What people outside of here need to understand when you’re talking about the impacts of oil sands, it’s not black and white. Everybody gets the health concerns, the traffic problems, the light pollution. But people are unwilling to speak out because this community is 100 percent dependent on the oil sands. There’s not a job here that’s not connected to the oil sands. Every one of us here in this community has ambivalent feelings–the health impacts, the cultural impacts, the impacts on band governance. But what do you do? Bite the hand that feeds you?”

In his editor’s note in the same issue, “Don’t Blame Canada,” Mark takes issue with environmental groups that aim to cripple the mighty tar sands machine, and notes that there’s plenty of blame to go around, even to you and me:

Convinced that they can slow the razing of the boreal forest if they can only plug the oil outflow, environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada have set their sites on stopping the expansion of cross border pipelines, halting the retrofitting of American refineries, and preventing the shipment of mining technologies. The basic idea seems to be that by squeezing supply we can increase the price of fossil fuels–and discourage their use. …

Environmental campaigners can do all the blaming and shaming of Canadian oil tycoons and financiers that they like. The fact is, there’s no way to halt the tar sands at the source. The only way to shut down the mines is to make them obsolete. And that will require finally getting over our addiction to oil. Given that more than half of the tar sands petroleum is consumed in the United States, the responsibility for the destruction up north lies with those of us who live south of the 49th parallel.

Source: Earth Island Journal

Panel image by sbamueller, licensed under Creative Commons.

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