A tailings pond won’t float your grandchild’s boat

I just finished reading The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King. It is an excellent book, incredibly well presented and researched, and should be required reading for everyone who lives in North America — both Canadians and Americans.

King makes the very valid point that land — specifically the desire to acquire land as property and then exploit it according to Western economic ideals of growth and development — is at the heart of all mistreatment, marginalization, abuse and disrespect of North American Native peoples by White populations throughout history. This idea that the land must be “developed,” “worked,” “tamed,” and that the resources within it must be “extracted,” “used,” “commodified,” is a uniquely White perspective, and it is not necessarily the right perspective. It’s certainly not right when you consider the long-term health and sustainability of our planet and everything that lives upon it, include us.

Let’s look at one of King’s more poignant examples, at least for folks in Western Canada: the Alberta Tar Sands. The Tar Sands are a toxic moonscape of bitumen extraction operations covering some 141,000 square kilometres — about 20 percent — of Alberta’s land surface. In 2015, Tar Sands tailing ponds contained 1.18 trillion litres of waste product, virtually none of it reclaimed to its natural state.[1] That’s about one litre of lethal sludge per dollar of economic gain, if you consider a 2005 study by the Canadian Energy Research Institute that estimated the Tar Sands could generate up to $1.14 trillion (CDN) in GDP between 2000 and 2020.[2]

Tar Sands operations began in 1967 and have done nothing but expand towards full capacity since, despite the obvious and proven havoc they are wreaking on the Alberta environment. Sadly, environmental costs don’t register on the dominant Western economic psyche, which idolizes dollar signs and places the bottom line at the top of its value pyramid. To quote King from here:

[The Alberta Tar Sands] is, without question, the dirtiest, most environmentally insane energy-extraction project in North America, probably in the world, but the companies that are destroying landscapes and watersheds in Alberta continue merrily along, tearing up the earth because there are billions to be made out of such corporate devastation. The public has been noticeably quiet about the matter, and neither the politicians in Alberta nor the folks in Ottawa have been willing to step in and say, “Enough,” because, in North American society, when in comes to money, there is no such thing as enough.

We all know the facts and figures. Carbon emissions from the production of one barrel of tar sands oil are eight times higher than the emissions from a conventional barrel. The production of each barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of fresh water, 90 percent of which never makes it back into the watershed. The waste water winds up in a series of enormous tailing ponds that cover some fifty square kilometres [220 square kilometres as of 2017[3]] and is so poisonous that it kills on contact. It is only a matter of time before one or more of the earthen dams that hold these ponds in place collapse and the toxic sludge is dumped into the Athabasca River.

Just as disturbing are the surreal structures that have begun to appear on the Alberta landscape. Sulfur, a by-product of the bitumen-to-oil process, is being turned into large blocks and stacked in high-rise piles on the prairies because no one knows what else to do with it. Predictably, these blocks are slowly decomposing, allowing the sulfur to leech out and spoil the ground water.

Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence, oil corporations, with the aid and abetment of government, are expanding their operations, breaking new ground, as it were, and building thousands of miles of pipeline — the Keystone Pipeline, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Transmountain Pipeline — that will take Alberta crude from Fort McMurray to refineries and markets in the United States (Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) and in Canada (Kitimat and Vancouver).

I know, I know, there are organizations that have been fighting this kind of ecocide for years, but unfortunately, they constitute only a small portion of the overall population. To be sure, they have had the occasional success, but there is little chance that North America will develop a functional land ethic until it finds a way to overcome its irrational addiction to profit. Unfortunately, there are no signs that that’s going to happen any time soon.

Sadly, King is probably on the ball with this one. Despite increasing public outcry — and action — over pipelines and potential environmental impacts, corporations and governments continue to bulldoze the path they most want to travel: “develop” the land, rake in the dollars, then move on to the next tract of “natural resources,” leaving a wake of wasteland that, if they thought about things on a personal level, none of these folks would wish their grandchildren to inherit, let alone inhabit.

Footnotes:

[1] Pembina Institute, http://www.pembina.org/oil-sands/tailings-ponds.

[2] Globe and Mailhttps://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/oil-sands-worth-14-trillion-study-finds/article25678588/.

[3] Calgary Heraldhttps://calgaryherald.com/business/energy/tailings-ponds-a-critical-part-of-albertas-oilsands-legacy.

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