It's time to take our heads out of the tar sands

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Quebec activists: Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Megantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all.

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Quebec activists: Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Megantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all.

This open letter from the Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray was originally published as Se sortir la tête des sables, in the Montreal daily Le Devoir on July 11. It was translated by Ethan Cox for  

Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Megantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all.

We write today as witnesses, witnesses to an ecological and social disaster which words can scarcely describe: we have just returned from Fort McMurray, Alberta, the nerve-centre of the tar sands. Welcomed by the local Indigenous community and accompanied by hundreds of citizens from across North America, we walked through the heart of the largest industrial project on the planet. Some of us also visited the Suncor Oil facilities at that company’s invitation.

What we have seen and heard has left an indelible mark upon us. We return deeply saddened and angry. The extent of the devastation caused by this industry is obvious to anyone who sets eyes upon the place, and the numbers confirm this feeling. Each day, oil sands production releases 11 million litres of toxic water into our natural environment — 4 billion litres per year — and emits the equivalent, in greenhouse gas emissions, of 15 million cars.

This is to say nothing of the appalling social effects upon local populations. In some Indigenous communities in the region cancer rates have exploded, and now exceed the Canadian average by a staggering thirty per cent. Meanwhile, the industry has treated First Nations with complete contempt: the Beaver Lake Cree community, for example, has recorded no less than 20,000 violations of their territorial treaties. In many cases, as much as 80 per cent of the territory of Indigenous communities is inaccessible to them at one point or another of the year due to tar sands development. Just as it is here, the Indigenous peoples are the forgotten ones in these types of development projects.

Pipelines: Essential to expanding production

But even this is not enough to slake the thirst for profits of these oil companies and their friends in the Harper government, who intend to double tar sands production by 2020 and triple it by 2030. There is, however, one major obstacle standing in the way of this short-sighted project: in order to produce all this oil — the objective is five million barrels per day — there must be a means of transporting it. And to transport it means to build pipelines: no pipelines, no expansion. Hence the numerous pipeline projects which have popped up across the continent over the last number of years. Fortunately, citizen mobilization, particularly in Indigenous communities, has been successful in slowing down, or even blocking, these destructive developments.

To the West, the proposed Northern Gateway project has been blocked — at least for now — thanks to the sustained mobilization of British Columbians and to the South, Keystone XL looks likely to be rejected by the Obama administration as a direct result of its impact on the climate. Consequently, the covetous gaze of the oil industry has now turned towards us, as they seek to unlock a transportation corridor for the heavy oil of the tar sands to travel East. This is the reason such tremendous pressure has been brought to bear on the government of Quebec to approve the proposed Line 9 reversal, which would also almost double the capacity of the pipeline between Montreal and Sarnia, Ontario. Last week, the government of Alberta announced their intention to cut a five billion dollar cheque, in order to encourage another pipeline project towards Quebec. This gives us an idea of their determination.

The equation is simple: more pipelines means more tar sands. And more tar sands means more greenhouse gas emissions: the oil produced in Fort McMurray emits between three and five times more CO2 than conventional oil. It is urgent that the Quebec public begins to question these projects. Do we wish to encourage this runaway development of the tar sands by giving the green light to Enbridge’s proposed Line 9 reversal? The consultation promised by the Marois government must take these known facts into account. In the meantime, a moratorium is needed.

Global warming

Since the disaster in Lac Mégantic, oil lobbyists and their allies have seized the opportunity to sing the praises of pipelines and tout them as a “safe” alternative. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since 1975, Albertan pipelines have been the cause of 28,666 oil spills. An average of two spills per day. We must refuse to choose between two catastrophes. Local tragedies, such as the one in Lac Mégantic, must not distract from the global tragedy which threatens us all. There will never be such a thing as “clean” oil. The longer we wait to turn onto the path of ecological sustainability, the more serious and costly the consequences. As we begin this process of transition, it is essential that First Nations be at its core, as they are so often the first victims of the unrestrained exploitation of energy resources.

A few weeks ago, we learned that the rate of CO2 in the air had reached its highest level in two to five million years: 400 parts per million (PPM). According to the International Energy Agency, we are heading towards a global warming of between three and five degrees, greater than the maximum threshold of two degrees set by the scientific community. The recognized reserves held by oil companies and oil-producing nations already contain five times more fossil fuel than is required to exceed that two degree tipping point towards catastrophic warming. We must accept that the oil, or at least a large part of it, will have to be left in the soil.

We return from this trip with one clear and unanimous conclusion, which the disaster in Lac-Mégantic only serves to confirm. It is imperative that a broad social debate take place immediately, not only on the proposed reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9, or the rules for transportation of petroleum products, but, more broadly, on the development of a real energy transition strategy which will allow us to kick our addiction to oil in a rational and efficient fashion. We need a serious timetable and a clear plan which does not depend upon individual guilt, but rather on the engagement of our collective institutions, such as Hydro-Quebec.

As a species, we have become addicted to oil, and we are in urgent need of detox. Breaking this dependence will be beneficial to us all, not only in the medium and long term, but in the short term as well. We must not wait for a more severe shock to our societies before we act. We must start today, while we have the means to make this transition gradually and democratically.

The members of the Quebec delegation to Fort McMurray:

Michel Lambert, Alternatives
Dominic Champagne, playwright
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, student
Patrick Bonin, Greenpeace
Éric Pineault, professor
Widia Larivière and Melissa Mollen Dupuis, Idle No More Québec
Geneviève Puskas, Équiterre
Julie Marquis, CSN
Marie-Josée Béliveau, Coalition vigilance oléoduc (CoVo)
Ethan Cox, Quebec Bureau Chief for
Arij Riahi, independent journalist
Tim McSorley, 
Media Coop
Mario Jean, photographer
Nydia Dauphin