Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A view of the tar sands you're not likely to hear from the government

There is a price to pay for Harper's "Energy Superpower" ambitions. Aida Edemariam writing in the Guardian spells out a few of them in a long article highlighting the troubles around the Athabasca tar sands. (All emphasis mine)
Current technology means companies can reach only about 10% of deposits, but even that makes the Athabasca oil sands the second largest proven oil reserve in the world. Add in the so far unreachable 90%, and Alberta's oil reserves would be at least six times the size of Saudi Arabia's. Already Canada produces as much oil as Kuwait. Soon it'll be two Kuwaits. Canada is the biggest single supplier of crude oil to the US. Small wonder Canada is increasingly described as the world's next great energy superpower.


The extraction of the oil requires heat, and thus the burning of vast amounts of natural gas - effectively one barrel of gas to extract two of crude - and some estimate that Fort McMurray and the Athabasca oil sands will soon be Canada's biggest contributor to global warming; nearly as much as the whole of Denmark. This in an area that has already seen, according to David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, two degrees of warming in the past 40 years.


The oil sands excavations are changing the surface of the planet. The black mines can now be seen from space. In 10 years, estimates Schindler, they are "going to look like one huge open pit" the size of Florida. Acid rain is already killing trees and damaging foliage. The oil companies counter that they are replanting - grass for bison, 4.5m trees by Syncrude alone - but the muskeg (1,000-year-old peat bog and wooded fen, which traps snow melt and prevents flash floods, and is home to endangered woodland caribou) is irreplaceable.

Two barrels of water are required to extract one barrel of oil; every day as much water is taken from the Athabasca river as would serve a city of a million people. Although the water is extensively recycled, it cannot be returned to the rivers, so it ends up in man-made "tailings ponds" (tailings is a catch-all term for the byproducts of mining), which are also visible from space. According to the US Department of the Interior, the dam holding back Syncrude's pond is the largest, by volume of construction material, in the world. Four of the projects haven't started production yet, so their tailings ponds haven't begun, but theirs, too, will soon be full of sand and what Schindler calls "dead water" because, he says, they're full of carcinogenic hydrocarbons and toxic trace metals such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, all topped off, in Syncrude's case, with an oil slick.


The federal government, led by a conservative Albertan, talks tough, but quietly approves more and more projects, even though the oil sands would have to be shut down altogether if Canada was to have a hope of meeting its commitment to the Kyoto agreement on reduction of emissions aggravating climate change. Everyone, as Canadian author Peter Marsden argues in a book unambiguously titled Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care), is turning a blind eye.
Does that explain anything?
Mayor Melissa Blake, just back from honeymoon, has the unenviable job of running a town buckling under the demands of a population that has doubled in the past 10 years, from 32,000 to about 65,000 - not counting a shadow population of about 10,000 itinerant construction workers. It is projected to grow by another 40,000 in the next five years. Increasingly, she has been squaring up to the Alberta government and to the oil companies: with one, for more money (funds are allocated on the basis of the stable population, not the shadow population, who pay taxes elsewhere); with the others, to slow, even halt construction of the mining and processing sites until she can catch up. No one seems much inclined to listen, so she is firefighting madly. A new sewage treatment plant, begun before a credit agreement was even in place, will be finished in 2009 - and will be too small a year later. A school that took three years to build was too small a year before it opened. Medical services are almost overwhelmed. Blake estimates that she needs roughly $2bn; this year she has debts of $330m.


Rents are among the highest in Canada - expensive cities such as Toronto or Vancouver notwithstanding - if there's anything available at all. Converted garages or spare rooms (no kitchen, no separate bathroom) can cost more than $1,000 a month.

Before she came to Fort McMurray looking for a better future for her three children, Inderjit Kaur, 40, taught computers and English in Mohali, in the Punjab. She began by nannying for her sister in exchange for minimum wage and board, and now has two jobs, nannying and taking telephone bookings at the big new recreation centre. She works 7.30am to 10.30pm, with few days off. After tax she earns $2,000 a month; a two-bedroom flat would cost $2,500 a month, so she can't ask her family to join her. She told them it would take a year, but she hasn't seen them for four.

There is a severe shortage of low-income housing in Fort McMurray, and since Kaur is effectively single, she keeps being bumped down the list in favour of families. "Have you been to the bushes?" she demands. In a place where earning $70,000 a year means you're effectively working poor, it is not uncommon for even the employed to resort to living in tents. The city enforces bylaws and moves them on, but people just set up their tents elsewhere.

Read the whole piece.

H/T Cat

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