The devastating impact of tar sands

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By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  January 29, 2014

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BEFORE Northwest Canada's boreal forest, along the Athabasca River. Photo courtesy of Pembina Institute.

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AFTER An oil sands operation in Alberta, Canada. Photo courtesy of Pembina Institute.

Two activists with first-hand knowledge of how tar sands oil can devastate a region will share their perspectives with audiences in Portland and Orono this week, as part of a New England-wide Tar Sands Exposed tour sponsored by 350 Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

They are: Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is currently suing Shell Canada for not following through on tar sands-impact mitigation agreements; and Garth Lenz, an environmental photojournalist and fine art photographer whose work has been featured in National Geographic and whose TED talk, “The True Cost of Oil” reveals the size, scope, and impact of the tar sands industry in Alberta, Canada. In addition to their two events in Maine, the speakers have also visited hubs in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts (as well as Montreal). Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, which sued the Canadian government in 2008, saying that tar sands development wreaked ecological destruction and therefore violated inherent treaty rights, has also spoken at several tour stops.

In Canada, Lenz says, the debate over tar sands is “incredibly polarized,” making it “almost impossible to have a reasonable conversation” on the subject. His goal is to provide a striking visual narrative that illustrates what statistics, and even stories, cannot.
Deranger and Lameman are both from Alberta, which also happens to be ground zero for tar sands production. They know first-hand the damage that oil-sands extraction can wreak on their land (traditionally used for hunting and trapping), their water systems, and their culture.

“We deserve clean drinking water, clean air to breathe, the ability to go to the land to subsist, to hunt, to fish, to forage, to find our medicines that are natural to us,” Lameman told BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg at the company’s annual meeting in 2012. “It was promised in our treaties, it is a constitutionally protected right, it is an inherent right, but most of all... because we’re human too, we exist, we’re here, and we’re not going anywhere.”

The tour is coming to Maine at an interesting time. For South Portlanders and other citizens who are concerned about the prospect of tar sands oil being piped into Maine and then shipped out of the Portland harbor, the indigenous activists could offer support, encouragement, and strategies. 

Those who think they are far removed from the remote, Western Canadian tar sands and their bearing on our day-to-day lives should think again. A report released last week from Environment Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine shows that while drivers in Maine and the Northeast currently get next to none of their gasoline from tar sands, that won’t be the case for long.

“[U]nder current plans, tar sands-derived gasoline supplies in 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states (including Maine) would soar from less than one percent in 2012 to 11.5 percent of the total by 2020,” the report reads, citing increased imports from Canadian and Gulf Coast refineries, which are processing higher amounts of tar sands oil, plus quantities from East Coast refineries that obtain tar sands crude via rail and barge. Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for NRCM, says that failing to keep tar sands fuel out of the state “would be like putting 33,000 additional cars on the road in Maine.”

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