Features  Insurgency in the oil sands

The Ryerson Free Press’s Kaitlin Fowlie analyzes the impact of Greenpeace’s recent protests in Alberta

The Athabasca oil sands are immense sights to behold. Hubs of activity, forklifts, drills, and dump trucks move around dirt and sand in an attempt to reach the rich oil beneath it.

If production of the Athabasca oil sands increases as planned, annual carbon emissions are expected to swell from 27- to 126-million tons by 2015, according to Greenpeace. The persistent growth of this energy development is pushing us closer and closer to ecological ruin. Unfortunately, fossil fuels remain the most popular and affordable source of energy we have, and as our current energy situation makes evident, they will likely continue to satisfy the majority of the world’s needs in decades to come.

Northern Alberta’s oil sands are evidence that our days of cheap and easy oil are over. Whom do we have to blame for the enormously demanding oil sands that continue to devour water and to pollute our air and soil?
Two dozen Greenpeace activists thought they had the answer. On September 15, the eve of Harper-Obama meeting and less than three months before the next major global summit on climate change in Copenhagen, 25 activists inserted themselves into Albian Sands Muskeg River Mine to protest the heavy-footed oil sands.

The activists barricaded some of the project’s giant machinery – which led to the grounds temporarily shutting down – for 31 hours until they finally released their chains and left peacefully.

The oil sands are widely known to have colossal environmental consequences, and Greenpeace’s concern lies in an apprehension of the future. The undertakings of the oil sands are enough to horrify any conscious earth dweller; their harm spreads from earth to air to water. The boreal forests of northern Alberta are being destroyed in order to reach the oil beneath; the Athabasca River is being increasingly exhausted; wildlife is suffering. Worst of all, the damage caused by project will have a lasting legacy on the earth.

The complicated and demanding process of extracting oil sands – a mixture of clay, minerals, water, and bitumen – requires more energy than processing conventional oil. It also produces at least three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil produced – not including the emissions released through the destruction of the boreal forest under the development.

The oil sands project currently uses 370-million cubic metres of fresh water each year from the Athabasca River. Most of the water used for the project is diverted into lakes called tailing ponds.

The tailing ponds cover more than 130 square kilometres along the Athabasca River – so large they can be seen from space. The waste in these ponds is severely toxic to aquatic life, birds, and humans that come in contact with it. In a way similar to the flow of the pesticide DDT, the contaminated water permeates its surrounding soil, affecting life cycles of wildlife and plants. Greenpeace estimates that the tailing ponds are leaking more than 11-million litres back into the Athabasca River daily.

Throughout the 31 hours of protest on September 15, updates direct from the mine were recorded onto the Greenpeace activist blog. Climate campaigner Mike Hudema wrote a few hours before entering the grounds: “Today we are going in to say ‘stop.’ We are going to stand in the way of the world’s largest dump trucks – over three stories tall and say ‘no further.’ I am going because the tar sands represent the toxic future in store for all of us if our politicians continue to choose the health of big oil profits, over the health of our planet and the people on it. I am tired of sitting on the sidelines while our world is pushed to the brink of climate chaos. Tired of political stalling while millions are displaced or will die due to global warming. Today, I will make a stand, like thousands before me and hopefully millions after, to push for a better, greener world. Wish me luck!”

Greenpeace’s blockade made headlines internationally. The security of the oil sands was called into question, prompting international security experts to note that they’re a prime terrorist target.

The protest was certainly heard, but did the protest actually do anything to discourage the multibillion-dollar energy development from operating? To put an end to political stalling? To work toward a greener future at all?

Interrupting the work of the oil sands employees is comparable to giving someone with a broken arm a band-aid. The fact that a serious environmental issue exists here is no revelation, and making a statement by breaking onto the grounds posed a great risk to the activists and could have had serious, unnecessary consequences. What we need is to work toward a rational solution to the fossil fuel problem, rather than an attempt to shock the world in an act of protest.

Although Shell, which owns 60 per cent of the mine, has been criticized in the past for misleading claims that their enterprise is ‘sustainable,’ the company appears to have no qualms with drawing attention to the environmental issues surrounding the oil sands – as they see the attention as an opportunity to explain how humans use this resource. And, it remains an unfortunate fact that the human race depends heavily on crude oil for thousands of products, ranging from crayons to ammonia to fuel.

That the world consumes oil at a frightening rate is not the fault of the oil sands employees, who had to deal with the Greenpeace activists as they attempted to “push for a better, greener world.” Many people hope for a fossil-fuel-free future, but disturbing the lives of the oil sands employees and the residents of Fort McMurray, whose community is being used as a launch pad for Greenpeace’s attention-seeking agenda (no matter how green or well-intentioned it may be) is no way to work toward a feasible solution.

Nevertheless, a lesson can be derived from all of this. Greenpeace definitely didn’t eliminate any global warming issues, but 25 of their activists did succeed in making a worldwide statement. If 25 people against the massive oil sands can make international headlines for a fossil-fuel-free future, then perhaps we, as individuals, are not so feeble. To be sure, the fact that a $67-billion oil sands industry exists, and that it is tearing up our natural environment with no end in sight, doesn’t provide a lot of hope for the future of sustainability. This story can remind us of our individual voices’ potential weight.