There may be more crude petroleum in Canada’s oil sands than in any other country except Saudi Arabia. In terms of burning of fossil fuels, we’ll sidestep any arguments about whether this is a good thing. We’ll also leave for another day a discussion of the impacts of building gas pipelines through The Mackenzie River Valley. Those pipelines from the northern edge of Canada will cut through the pristine wilderness of the valley and would fuel the tar sand development in Alberta. There’s more about this in our forthcoming book, Enough of Us.
Tar sands projects are projected to be the largest single addition to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. A Canadian company, Enbridge, wants to build a $6 billion pipeline project that would cut west to the town of Kitimat, just south of the Alaska panhandle. In Kitimat the crude would be pumped aboard crude-oil carrying ships, each about 1,100 feet long. Since Kitimat is not directly on the ocean, the tankers would have to navigate down a narrow inlet and then through a maze of islands to get to the open sea. Exxon Valdez, anyone?
The First Nations (as in native Canadians) people are not happy. Environmentalists are not happy. And the unique wildlife in the area won’t be happy, either.
In March of 2006, a ferry on a routine run hit a rock on the tip of one of the islands. It sank. Two people aboard the ferry disappeared. The other 99 were rescued by local residents. While the tanker sits in Davy Jones’s locker, a bit of its thousands of gallons of diesel fuel leaks out each day. The local Gitg’at Nation is none too comfortable with the idea of ships more than twice as long as the ferry plying local waters, laden with two million barrels of oil. Can you blame them? Check out the August 2011 edition of National Geographic for photos and maps of this beautiful wilderness, which includes the Great Bear Rainforest. This forest includes the home of the “Spirit Bear” – the rare white black bear.
Right now, the United States is the only customer for Canada’s sand oil. That oil is transported south through pipelines. The westbound oil is for Asian markets. In fact, a Chinese company is helping to fund the planning and permitting of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
A big political debate in the current presidential campaign is over dependence on foreign oil. “Let’s use all our coal reserves; our natural gas; our oil.” What no candidate dares to speak is the phrase, “Let’s stop encouraging people to have more kids.” While we grant U.S. residents tax credits, deductions and college benefits, we encourage human reproduction. Let’s burn up our natural energy legacy. Let’s make it easier for Asian countries to grow their populations and move them into the consumer class. And let’s destroy nature’s beautiful legacy in the process.
In the 1990s First Nations people sold off their timber rights. When clear-cuts became the norm, bear habitats disappeared, and salmon spawning grounds were destroyed, environmentalists butted in. The battle raged on for 15 years, involving the local natives, the tree huggers and the corporations. There is now ecosystem based management and no logging. Now it’s about the tankers.
The environmental group Pacific Wild is trying to protect the existing forests and waterways. “It will become one of the biggest environmental battles Canada has ever witnessed,” says co-founder Ian McAllister in National Geographic. “It’s going to be a bareknuckle fight.”
And so it shall be. Sixty-one Canadian First Nations have declared their intent to not allow the pipeline, although it’s not clear what their aboriginal rights are in British Columbia. In the meantime, Enbridge is trying to get the nations to buy into the project. “Buy into what” asks Gitg’at council member Cameron Hill, “to selling our way of life? We live off food from the land and sea here. We’ve been taught to respect what we take. That’s sustained us from time immemorial. No amount of money can get us to change our position.”
We call your attention to his use of the word “sustain.” As consumer societies grow in number and wealth, we will sooner or later have to decide whether we can sustain ourselves. In one month human population will reach seven billion. To quote Bette Davis in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”