Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Discussion Points on a Moratorium

Discussion Points on a Moratorium
No New Approvals-- of what?
July 29, 2008

What a difference a year can make. Since the Summer of 2007, the median opinion in Alberta has moved forward rapidly. A year ago a few environmental NGO groups were calling for a moratorium on tar sands project approvals and some other social groups, indigenous nations and trade unions were (while many others were not) suggesting that development of the tar sands could continue but needed to slow down at least the pace of development. Through much hard work, reaching out, networking and building trust-- in less than a year-- almost all ENGO's, the Alberta Federation of Labour and many local unions along with “non environmentally focused” organizations such as the Council of Canadians and The Polaris Institute have all united together to call for what is now a singular campaign to have “No New Approvals”. The No New Approvals[NNA] campaign has brought a level of unity in among many social sectors that had never seen such before, and includes almost every effected first nations community through to landowners associations.

Many may cynically doubt the rapid growth of a unified focus for the over-all social justice forces based on a provincial election held in March; an election that produced an even larger majority government for the Conservatives even though they are now minus their teflon-coated “King Ralph” Klein. That analysis would be very short sighted, as only a little over 40 percent of the electorate bothered to cast a vote, and at the end of the day barely more than 20% of those legally able to cast a ballot did so for the Conservative Party. Essentially, not stuffing a ballot paper in a box is a form of voting as well-- and in Alberta the number of people who no longer automatically show up at the polls to re-cast themselves the subjects of the Conservative Kingdom is higher than ever before, despite what the results show in a first-past-the-post system.

Also during the last year, the level of action and resistance being brought about by the social justice forces of all stripes has escalated on many levels. The culmination in all this work has been the success of uniting progressive forces around the call to establish a moratorium in the tar sands. What does this entail? From the call out:

“We are calling, with one voice, for the Alberta Government to take the first step for a cessation of new oil sands approvals and lease sales. The time is now to stop the uncontrolled oil sands development and deal with the environmental and social concerns that it has created.
Regardless of the reason, there is one thing we all agree on - the first step is to stop adding to the problem.
No new approvals on oil sands development!”

This growing call has brought a momentum, and may even see some of the federal political parties that actually hold seats in parliament joining into that call. In a province where organizing people to take action, state a contrary political position publicly and more has often been seen as an exercise in futility, this is a major opening. Further to that, to see many workers organizations signing on in tandem with ENGO's, first nations, community groups and other organizations throughout the province is incredibly promising from the angle of a common front. The difficulty in getting such together would be nearly impossible to overestimate, and for those relatively few who have spearheaded this initiative hearty congratulations are indeed in order.

Why do some other groups and initiatives across Canada and elsewhere call for a full shut down of all tar sands related projects? Is this posturing for radical purposes, or is there a different reason for that? If there were a moratorium call heeded by the Edmonton or Ottawa governments, would that not be a step towards any goal of shutting down the tar sands gigaproject?

Almost all of the concerns that are listed as the reasons for a call on NNA would and could not adequately be addressed by a moratorium call, and in some cases could have the opposite effect of making it more difficult to address them further down the line. Since a moratorium call leaves existing approvals in place, it would not reduce or even stop the steady increase of many of the environmental problems that are already among some of the gravest in the world, from climate changing greenhouse gases & deforestation, to the perhaps already irreparable damage being done to the Athabasca River.

When both pipeline infrastructure plans and the deforestation in the Athabasca Region are included, only the Amazon Basin in Brazil currently has a deforestation rate going faster. Under NNA, this deforestation rate would neither decrease nor slow down, in theory. There are already approvals that cover a forested area roughly the size of Vancouver Island (to be dug out and poisoned in the Athabasca Region alone). Given that the current approvals are nowhere near full production capacity yet, even with NNA being undertaken tomorrow (especially now that the Muskeg River has been assigned for obliteration with the re-approval of Imperial's Kearl Project) the rate of deforestation must increase dramatically. Deforestation always increases climate change, and in this section of the Boreal forest also decimates wetlands that exacerbate this more rapidly. Just the 8 projects alone in the Athabasca Region of the tar sands could conceivably go as high as 3 million barrels of oil a day (mbpd). That is nearly triple the current daily output of over a million barrels, almost all headed to the United States.

Climate change emissions have no existing technology to be stored or otherwise eliminated. All of the sequestration and other editorially described “plans” are theories in the abstract. Even if such technology were to suddenly materialize, its application would not prevent further climate change as mentioned above, due to deforestation-- but also due to yet further increases in water use and river displacement. Further, the construction of such “sequestration” systems would costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars if not more-- the $4 billion put up by Alberta is a drop of a drop in the bucket towards anything real.

The currently unsustainable water draw levels off the Athabasca and elsewhere in the tar sands regions must, under NNA, continue to increase. The combination of factors in continually growing production levels will still increase the destabilization of climate. Nothing other than a shut down of existing production can change this. All of these effects are cumulative-- it means driving slower towards the destination, not reversing course.

Pipelines for both power in and delivery of bitumen and/or dirty crude out will continue to displace both wildlife and violate the self-determination of both treatied and non-treatied indigenous nations. From The TCPL Keystone to Enbridge Gateway out, and from The TCPL-led North Central Corridor as well as The Mackenzie Gas Project in, existing approvals and not-yet-fully operational systems will still need increased pipeline capacity under NNA. The number of refineries that are expanding, converting or being built anew for tar sands mock oil is already underway. Before the tar sands boom the last constructed refinery in the United States was in the mid-seventies. Now, there are plans for new or refurbished-to-tar sands-crude refineries in the lower 48 States that may number up to 30 in the near future, from Bellingham to San Francisco, and from North Dakota to Louisiana.

As labour needs continue to grow and yet availability does not, Canada will use this to simultaneously expand Temporary Foreign Worker programs throughout Alberta to work in jobs associated with the boom, and undermine existing environmental and labour legislation. Again, under NNA there is still vast levels of construction and more to complete, yet a stark lack in labour to perform these tasks. Alberta already leads the way in using TFW's for modern slavery levels; NNA may slow this down but it will not reverse this tide, either.

Individual Mega Projects such as pipelines and refineries take a great toll on communities adjoining their area; this is an exacerbated process in more isolated indigenous communities. Work camps and attendant violence, drugs and alcohol and survival-driven sex work are often associated with massive development projects. For but one example: the community of Wrigley/Pehdzeh Kí in the Deh Cho Region (Northwest Territories) has a population approximating 200; The proposed Mackenzie Gas Project would locate a camp of over one-thousand workers near this town site. In towns and cities like Fort McMurray and Edmonton, out of control housing prices are also driving up homelessness and survival sex-work as a means to “secure” a roof over the head for a night.

With any moratorium that were granted there are many risks that could not only be insufficient in stopping human and ecological destruction, but there are problems politically associated with it as well. A moratorium would leave the corporations working now with a “grandfather clause”-- one that would leave their stock price much more attractive in the days following what would amount to their exclusive access (joint monopolization for the 8 existing approvals in The Athabasca Region alone) to the largest non-Saudi oil deposit in the days after an announced moratorium. The projects already approved are not going to run out of areas to operate for decades, making the largest players such as Albian Sands, Syncrude and Suncor a better investment and more stable than even currently.

A moratorium, as is becoming apparent with the political maneuvering to deny the legality of the long established moratorium against oil and gas tanker traffic on BC's coast makes clear, can be reversed with little effort by a Provincial or Federal government. Imagine the following scenario: NNA is implemented, for the next several years previously approved projects are built up and brought on line (totaling as much as 3mbpd), during which time groups such as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) claim to have made more than a simple compromise and upon reaching full capacity of prior approved projects, a call to undo the moratorium alights anew. At this time what the political will of the players would be is obviously impossible to predict. Nonetheless, though NNA is a non-compromise from any practical point, it would be not only celebrated as a political victory by environmental and social justice campaigners, it would also appear to be a social victory against the tar sands gigaproject-- that fact would get played up exponentially by the energy corporations in their bid to re-open the moratorium, many years prior to existing projects running low on bitumen.

One of the most common critiques from both the left and the right of any shut down call is simply that the tar sands provide much needed jobs for people trying to feed their families. The nickname of Fort McMurray of “the second largest city in Newfoundland” is not only testimony to the needs of the traveling workers from The Rock, it is a reminder of what happens to a work force with all their eggs in one basket when that basket breaks and the jobs disappear. But it is not only in the mindset of theory that a realistic alternative exists: There have been vastly polluting mining operations in the United States where upon shut down of the mine, the company was required to hire on their workers and spend capital on restoration of the damaged ecosystem.

With a royalty rate still laughable and among the lowest in the world it would take seemingly impossible political will for a government at any level to seize the assets of any tar sands producer to force the re-hiring of labour to try and mitigate the damage that has already been done to such a huge territory. But it is not without precedent and it lays the blame on the corporations and energy interests, and does not target those who are trying to hold together a family. Jobs can be both protected and converted to constructive ends rather than destructive. The only thing that must go is further production and corporate control over direction.

NNA is a very powerful campaign that has garnered more alliances along a broad progressive spectrum like few calls or campaigns in Alberta in many years. Labour siding with environmentalists alone is a sight to behold in Alberta. That combines with the rapidly growing level of outrage over the tar sands gigaproject across Canada and even in the United States. As communities throughout the United States suddenly discover pipelines eating their forests and farmlands and refineries being implanted in the backyards of their cities, villages and coastlines they are looking-- in industry parlance-- “upstream” to see where this is coming from. More and more eyes are being cast at quiet, complacent Canada as this country here becomes Ground Zero for so many social and environmental degradations on a global scale. On this basis, having a politically unified call for NNA is a lightning rod for participation by others and to be celebrated. That Alberta seriously considers this call is a jump in awareness and a cause for renewed hope. But the need to also be honest about what it will take to address the same concerns that people are discussing more often is vital. The expanding of the debate to include the proponents of a shut down and to publicly have more and more people explain: There is no “middle ground”, it's time to shut down the tar sands or accept the myriad of threats to self determination and human rights across every corner of North America.

The American and Canadian located communities that are up and downstream and in the pathway of megaprojects are looking to the source of the threats to their self determination and are ending up at the end of Highway 63 in Northern Alberta. Many become aghast at what they discover in the areas outlying “Fort Muck”. They then try to campaign against the local tar sands intrusion. When these communities resist pipelines and refineries in their backyard, they are helping shut down the tar sands. As always, without expanded capacity there is no expanded production. For us in the north, the only way to carry out our concerns over the environmental and human rights catastrophes involve speaking the truth: There is no argument for the continued operation of the tar sands. They are destroying life on earth. They are killing human beings. They are downgrading the majority's standard of living and benefiting a tiny minority. The tar sands must be shut down, anything less is-- as the old cliché goes-- rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Yet the real question is: do we sink or swim?

We need to openly discuss, rationally: shutting down the tar sands, realistically tackle “reclamation” and make the corporations pay 100 percent of the bill with proper responsibility to the working men and women in the tar sands-- and proper reordering of the economic structures of both Alberta and North America as a whole away from a reliance on scraping the bottom of the barrel for a dying oil-based economy.

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Discussion Points on a Moratorium

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