The stench of reality
Saturday, April 25 2009
The tar sands suddenly are a root metaphor for every pressing issue we face both as Canadians and as members of the human species, writes The Gazette's William Marsden in his essay The Perfect Moment. Here is an excerpt:
Soon after he became Alberta's premier, Ed Stelmach quickly set everyone straight. There would be "no touching the brake" on the tar sands, he announced. For Stelmach the tar sands are a hulking luxury vehicle with a powerful, throbbing engine, and the way to drive it is simple. You crank the ignition, point the beast in any direction you want and let her run. The only rule is that once you hit the road there will be no easing up on the gas. As the Lexus ad says: "This is it. This is what a perfect moment feels like. Brilliant. I love it." This is Alberta's moment. Fuck posterity. What's it ever done for me?
It's no mystery why Canadians would rejoice at the mere thought of the tar sands, mesmerized as they are by such a colossus. The wealth encased in those tiny black grains is staggering. The expanse of the sands is enormous. They underlie an area, as the Alberta government website boasts, "larger than the state of Florida, twice the size of New Brunswick, more than four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island, and 26 times larger than Prince Edward Island." We have barely dug up 2 percent and you can already see the scars from the moon, or so I'm told. As conventional wells dry up and oil companies spend increasing amounts of money and energy to find less and less oil, the certainty that there are 174 billion barrels - and possibly a lot more - in northern Alberta should be heartening. That's enough to meet Canadian needs at present consumption for the next two hundred years at least. As prices hit a record US$146 a barrel in July 2008, tar sand reserves added up to more than US$25.4 trillion. It's made our gross domestic product figures sparkle. Our public debt is the lowest among the G7 countries. Our employment figures, in Alberta at least, have soared as jobs go begging and we're forced to bring in thousands of foreign workers. Literally every gauge of wealth and good fortune seems to show that we've got nothing to worry about, thanks to the tar sands. The world financial crisis that struck in October 2008 may have slashed energy stocks in half and reduced the high price of oil to less dizzying heights, but it did not affect the fundamental profitability of energy companies' operations, which continued to gush cash. We can carry on down the endless highway of our dreams, firmly convinced that the world as we know it will go on forever.
Don't you just wish it were so?
The world as we know it is essentially a blip on a geological timeline - the brief but spectacular "Age of Oil." The unrivalled flexibility and stored power of fossil fuels has allowed us to escape from a world that held us hostage to the limits of our muscle fibre. The energy stored in one barrel of oil is equivalent to five labourers working 12-hour days non-stop for a year. The offering, however, is much more than brute force. Our machines not only do the grunt work for us but also are "manifestations of a perfect life, assisting you to realize goals, achieve greatness, and passionately embrace every perfect moment." That's what the Lexus ls460brochure tells us. (But we don't believe that, do we?) Fossil fuels have shaped every facet of our lives, right down to our thoughts, hopes and dreams. These hopes and dreams are moulded with petroleum oil, just as plastic is.
One of the obvious ironies our world ignores is that we refuse to extend our pride of mathematical precision to the basic math of world oil reserves. It's simple. Our reserves total about 1.2 trillion barrels, give or take a few hundred million. We use this oil up at a rate of more than thirty billion barrels each year. That means world reserves will last about another thirty-nine years. Petroleum geologists, such as Andrew Miall at the University of Toronto, predict that what's left undiscovered will give us another ten to twenty years, tops.
When I pointed out this dilemma to a friend, an intelligent, fairly well informed self-made millionaire, he quite innocently asked: Can't we just make more?
The harsh reality we are waking up to will reek like the stench of the tar sands. The fact that we are chewing up a billion years of energy accumulation in a mere two centuries, and that our world is not capable of infinite growth, will inevitably shatter our delusions and force us to accept that the world is a finite, closed system of limited resources that has to be managed not by greed but by thought. The fact that we are so heavily mining about one-fifth of the entire province of Alberta to extract a dirty, climate-changing fossil fuel is not a reflection of victory. It is a sign of defeat. Drilling and pumping is easy and cheap compared to the expensive and often difficult process of extracting oil from the tar sands. Yet every major company is spending billions for the privilege, their faith in the drill bit shaken. Like a frightened army, pillaging and looting in its desperate retreat, we are destroying a vast ecosystem vital to our long-term well-being just to keep the perfect moment alive.
The tar sands suddenly are a root metaphor for every pressing issue we face both as Canadians and as members of the human species. We are caught in a confused state of hope, denial and necessity: hope that our technological brilliance will allow us to uncover a clean energy equivalent to oil just in time to keep the perfect moment going; denial that the more likely outcome is that we face drastic changes in the way we live; and the bleeding necessity to keep burning oil and gas because it propels us to our work stations and it keeps us from starving or freezing in the dark. Someone once said we are four missed meals away from chaos. That was then. Now it's one tank of gas.
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My guide to the tar sands, Peter Duggan, and I trundle along dirt roads in his pickup truck through the cool autumn air past towering refineries with their shiny tangle of pipes and chimneys belching steam and flaring off gas, then along the edge of two open pit mines that measure about thirty kilometres from end to end - Syncrude's eight tar sands leases total about one hundred thousand hectares, almost twice the size of Toronto - before descending into a third mine that had only recently been opened. It is approximately seven kilometres long with an adjacent toxic tailings pond measuring three kilometres by three kilometres, which in my book makes it a toxic tailings lake. It's in these massive lagoons that the oil companies dump the poisonous, chemical-laden detritus of their vast processes. About eighteen barrels of the stuff for every barrel of oil produced.
This is where five hundred ducks died in April 2008 when they landed on the oil-soaked ponds. Syncrude claimed it was an isolated incident. But I was told that migratory birds die in those ponds all the time. Local Cree are employed to rake them out. The entire Athabasca Delta and surrounding boreal forest are nurseries for hundreds of species of song and water birds. Forest destruction destroys their breeding grounds. The tar sands kill them.
The ponds, some of which are held together by the world's second- largest system of dams, are a mixture of water, sand, silt and bitumen, a tar-like mixture containing hydrocarbon toxins. They are breeding grounds for methanogenic bacteria - bacteria that produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is at least twenty times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The oil companies are studying ways to reduce the lighter hydrocarbons in the tailings, thereby reducing the munching bacteria and their "fugitive gases." But, in the end, nobody knows what to do with the tailings. The companies hope that bacterial action will eventually dispose of the hydrocarbons. Some scientists believe that freezing them into ice pellets will reduce their toxicity. But there's no sign of a speedy neutralization. The only certainty is that the ponds will continue to expand, swallowing up more and more of the boreal forest. ...
So, what am I thinking as I stand in the pit trying to absorb my surroundings? I'm surprised at my own answer. I'm thinking that this is the way life should be: filled with great human endeavours unencumbered by self-restraint, focused on the universal task of extracting energy. That is what mankind has always done and always will do, restrained only by the nature of the energy source. Yet the thought that this level of destruction represents normality is horrifying. But I soon realize that I feel this way because when you are in the pit, the pit is all you see and you can't imagine life any other way. You have to rise up ten thousand metres or more and circle the widening sacrifice zone of your psyche to get, so to speak, the whole picture, and see the wild beauty of what once was and will never be again. Only then can you even begin to understand what is happening.
Not surprisingly, we Canadians increasingly live in a confusion of values. A 2008 survey by the Globe and Mail found that while 79 percent of respondents said the tar sands are good for Alberta and Canada, more than half of those respondents (55 percent) said that the sands were not good for the environment. The obvious contradiction can be justified only by minimizing or disconnecting oneself from the importance of Earth's ecosystems. The problem is that global warming and the rapid dying out of species makes this level of self-deception increasingly dangerous. We are suddenly caught in the headlights of a new fear: when will it be our turn?
Rick George, president and chief executive officer of Suncor, was clearly worried about the Globe poll when he responded with an article designed to reassure the public and his shareholders alike. "I have always been a strong advocate of environmental stewardship and a vision of sustainability (sic) that stressed the importance of combining strong financial results with equally strong social and environmental performance," he wrote in the Globe and Mail in June 2008. But is that possible? Is it possible for a company like Suncor to operate and at the same time be good stewards of the environment? Of course not. George can talk about how his company has reduced water use and sulphur emissions and state that "Going green makes good business sense." But by 2012, his company plans to almost double its output to 550,000 barrels per day, which will more than double its annual greenhouse gas emissions to 25.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent - equivalent to the emissions of about one-fifth of all the cars in Canada, from 11.5 million. That alone would make up about 4 percent of Canada's current greenhouse gas emissions. No matter how you cut it, Rick George is still in the pit. He is a miner responsible for a company that for forty years has wreaked and will continue to wreak, for at least another forty years, an environmental holocaust in northern Alberta. His company is a huge contributor to global warming.
Some might say that to blame the Rick Georges of our world for this destruction would be wrong. He is simply a smart man who has become a champion in an economic system in which we all partake and benefit. But I'm not sure that's much of an argument. We may all be part of the system, we may all be responsible, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, but not all of us are guilty. I never asked the Rick Georges of this world to go up to Alberta and destroy a hefty portion of my own backyard. Nor was I ever asked. Even though global warming is affecting my life and will drastically affect the lives of my children and grandchildren, I never had a choice. Nobody came to me or anybody else that I know of and honestly laid out the pros and cons of tar sands development. Nobody said that if we build this mine we will destroy this amount of forest, pollute these waterways, accelerate global warming and harm Earth's ecosystem in this and that way and we have no idea whether we can repair any of the damage. That would have been the beginning of true environmental stewardship. Waving a green flag after four decades of letting the free market call the shots does not qualify. If Suncor had asked my opinion, I would have said no. The price is too high. If it means less oil, fine. I'll figure something out. I'll campaign to improve public transit and to create compact communities where daily commutes aren't necessary and where all you have to do is walk down to the corner to get milk. We don't have the technology to extract oil safely from the sands, but we certainly have the telecommunications that will permit us to live without relying entirely on the automobile. We'll change our lifestyle and probably be happier for it. We'll find other sources of revenue and jobs. It may not be the perfect moment, but that's okay. I can deal with that.
That's what many of us - perhaps most of us - would have told the Rick Georges of this world, if they had bothered to ask. But they didn't. And that's why we're deep in the tar sands pit.
Excerpted from Carbon Shift, edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon with Nick Garrison. "The Perfect Moment" Copyright © 2009 William Marsden. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2009