Are Alberta Oilsands developments sustainable?

An edited version of this article can be found in the current (Jan.-Mar. 2013) issue
of the Peace and Environment News (PEN)
“Like all civilizations the West is based on a great religion — the religion of progress. This is the belief that the conquest of human and non-human nature will give existence meaning. Western civilization is now universal so that this religion is nearly everywhere dominant. To question the dominant world religion is indeed to invite an alienation far greater than the simply political.”—George Grant, Technology and Empire, 1969, p.77
Double, Double Oil and Trouble
By Rolf Auer on 6 December 2012
In the Thursday, 25 October 2012 issue of the daily mini-tabloid 24 hours was an article, “Alta. oil good for all provinces: Report.” Second paragraph: “Untapped reserves and openness to investment contribute to jobs and wealth all along the supply chain across Canada and beyond, the Conference Board of Canada report said.” The rest of the article is much of the same. The implication, in other words, is that no one had better question “the religion of progress” mentioned in the quote by George Grant: the religion that economic growth—particularly that based on oil—is desirable at all costs, even if it means the destruction of civilization.
If we are to judge only by the aforementioned article, then supposedly Alberta’s Oil Sands developments do nothing but good for Canada. Is this in fact true?
Tests conducted by an Oil Sands industry-independent water scientist at the University of Alberta show massive amounts of Oil Sands water pollution and even air pollution caused by Oil Sands developments. Furthermore, these facts are backed by irrefutable evidence of acutely elevated occurrences of pollution-related diseases, such as cancer.[1]
During the half-hour-long 2008 documentary, Downstream, one Native woman from the Alberta First Nations town of Fort Chipewyan condemns the water from the Athabasca River as undrinkable.[2] From a related news article: “Many Fort Chip residents have even forsaken the town’s purified tap water, struggling to afford the bottled kind, which sells for $8 a gallon.”[3]
Not only has the water (untreated or even treated) from the Athabasca River been proven to be undrinkable, it is so catastrophically polluted that it destroys not only the health of the First Nations peoples living beside it, but also all of the wildlife depending upon it in any manner for their existence (fish, fowl, et cetera).[4]
It is largely First Nations communities that are bearing the hidden costs of tar sands development. The injustice of an economic gain that profits select Canadians while jeopardizing others’ health and access to clear water is undeniable.[5] (italics mine)—from the 2010 article titled, “Dirty oil’s human price”  
The headline of this article is a pun on a line from a scene in one of William Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth: originally “Double, double toil and trouble,” an incantation by witches. Although punning is a form of humour, what has happened because of the Oil Sands developments to First Nations peoples is no joke. I chose this headline anyway, because to think of oil as some kind of economic panacea while ignoring concomitant pollution problems is a recipe for disaster of the “double indemnity” type (thus the pun). The hazards experienced by the First Nations peoples living beside the environmentally destroyed Athabasca River is only one of many examples of proof of this clearly obvious observation.
From the 2008 article, “Scenes from the Tar Wars,” by Josh Harkinson in the magazine Mother Jones, a companion piece to the previously mentioned documentary, Downstream: “As American politicians talk about weaning us from Middle Eastern crude and the price of oil has skyrocketed, the tar sands have become a viable source of foreign fossil fuel. Canada is now the United States' top oil supplier, selling us more than the Saudis. Not since Texas wildcatters hit black gold 80 years ago has North America seen such a frantic rush for oil. Over the next five years, investment in the Alberta tar sands is expected to exceed $75 billion; oil production is set to increase by 160 percent by 2015. Alberta's 59 tar sands sites now form the single largest industrial zone in the world. If it is fully developed, the result could be up to 54,000 square miles of man-made wasteland.[6] (italics mine)
“Alberta has draconian laws about environmental impact and hazards from drilling anything in Alberta, and has had them in place for over 40 years. (1) You must restore the property drilled or defaced (oil, minerals, water, gas, you name it) to the same or better condition in which you found it, and (2) any danger to civilians as a result is fined and taken seriously.”—anonymous comment excerpt (by “MRW” ) on the 2011 article titled, “To The Last Drop”[7]
Unquestionably, however, these laws are being flouted with impunity. From “Dirty oil’s human price”: “In their recent Shell Jackpine mining proposal to increase bitumen extraction, Shell Canada has admitted that changes to groundwater quality ‘will be long term and irreversible.’ Yet the Canadian government has failed to systematically regulate the full-scale effects of tar sands development on local water quality.”[8]
Downstream tells of how medical doctor John O’Connor was the “official” whistleblower, who alerted the public to the disastrously contaminated Athabasca River. The provincial and federal government responses were to lay charges against him, among them, “undue alarm.” (Social justice activists, beware! As the quaint saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”)
Classism has been defined as “the systematic oppression of one group by another based on economic distinctions based on one’s position within the system of production and distribution.”[9] Since First Nations peoples tend to traditionally depend much more on nature than on the West’s standard economic means for survival, they are especially susceptible to the West’s typical classist forms of discrimination, as is exemplified by the exploitation of some First Nations peoples by the Alberta Oil Sands developments. Life for First Nations peoples on reservations further bears out this idea.
Searches on “Athabasca oil sands” and “western Canadian sedimentary basin” in Wikipedia show the Canadian government was aware both of the value of the Oil Sands, and of the rights of the Natives living in that area at the end of the 19th century. More than 100 years has elapsed, and because of the ramped-up exploitation of First Nations peoples living in the Oil Sands areas today, they are fed up. The evidence is in the number of protests they have mounted in opposition to the Oil Sands developments. The most recent massive and vociferous one was Defend Our Coast, which took place around Wednesday, 24 October 2012. Canadians from all walks of life participated, in addition to First Nations people, who—as far as this writer knows—organized the protest. (As noted in the opening of this article,24 hours did not report this demonstration, but instead chose to promote the Oil Sands.)
dirtyoilsands.org/blog/article/All_The_Dirt_Thats_Fit_To_Print_About_Tarsands_Oct_25: “On Wednesday, Defend Our Coast protests erupted in more than 60 communities all over B.C. and other parts of North America. Five hundred people turned out in Davis Bay on the Sunshine Coast, B.C. One hundred and twenty people protested In Bella Bella, almost 10 per cent of the town. Two hundred showed up in the BC Liberal stronghold of Penticton, and more than 100 in Nanaimo. In Vancouver, 350 people (and live CTV news coverage) gathered outside BC Premier Christy Clark's office.”
Until Canadian governments halt the bleeding of Canada’s lands by unscrupulous business developments, there will be more protests. As the Canadian public becomes increasingly aware of the health risks associated with ignoring environmental concerns, there will eventually be a reckoning at the ballot box.

[1] “Oilsands adding carcinogens to Athabasca River: study,” CBC News, 8 December 2009
[3] “Scenes from the Tar Wars,” Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones, May/June 2008
[4] op. cit., footnote 2.
[5] “Dirty oil’s human price,” Nora Hope, The McGill Daily, 12 February 2010
[8] op. cit., footnote 5.
[9] The Foundations of Class and Classism, Chuck Barone, downloadable .pdf, p.6

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