If there were seven wonders of the world’s destruction, the tar sands complex in Alberta might well be first on the list. It’s an assembly of devastation so brutal and absurd as to beggar the imagination – but that’s why we have Google Earth, so you can log on and see for yourself. See the holes so enormous that their builders have moved more earth than for the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal and the 10 biggest dams on earth combined. Only the Three Gorges Dam is more massive than the one that holds back Syncrude’s tailing ponds.
And the crude squeezed from these tar sands? It’s the dirtiest oil on earth. You have to heat it to make it flow – that’s why there are natural gas pipelines flowing in from hundreds of miles away, and even talk of building a nuclear reactor. By the time it reaches the tailpipe of a car, it’s done far more damage to the climate than even the oil from Saudi Arabia or Texas.
And that’s if it makes it there without spilling. Already, leaks have done great damage to the Kalamazoo River; the latest science finds carcinogens in “pristine” lakes in the wild surrounding the sprawling mines. The lives of the First Nations people who have lived there forever have been changed forever.
The only good news is that the magnitude of this horror has given rise to a movement of new size and vigor. In America, it’s spawned the fight against the Keystone Pipeline; in Canada, plans for pipes to the Pacific have been slowed. Native North Americans have long been in the lead, but they’ve been joined by many others, including the heroes described here. We fight for many reasons: for this beautiful land and the people on it, and also for the planet that this vast pool of carbon would help destroy.
That oil needs to stay safely in the ground, just as the forests of the Amazon need to stay safely upright and the Oglala Aquifer pristine. It’s a test of how wise we are as human beings – maybe a final test.
Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Chris Darimont claims to take his inspiration as an activist from others, but when he speaks against the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, and in support of the vast coast of British Columbia and the indigenous people who have lived there for 10,000 years, he speaks from an activist’s heart.
”These are people that evolved with salmon biologically and culturally,” he says. “They would spill their blood to protect that resource.”
Darimont, director of science at Raincoast, writes articles and op-eds opposing the pipeline and helped film the documentary Groundswell to warn Canadian and U.S. citizens of the risks to their coasts.
“I’ve seen zero compromise by either Enbridge or the people opposed to this,” Darimont says. “And that’s good because I think there is real danger in compromise. There is no such thing as an environmentally just pipeline to our coast. There is no appropriate compromise to that.”
National Wildlife Federation
In July 2010, a 30-foot-long section of the Enbridge Energy Pipeline ruptured just downstream of Marshall, Michigan. Almost one million gallons of heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands gushed first into Talmadge Creek and then 35 miles down the Kalamazoo River.
Beth Wallace grew up along the banks of the river and was there to see the spill. “The entire river was filled with oil,” she says. “A muskrat was desperately trying to clean itself and was failing miserably.”
Beth is spearheading a public campaign on pipeline safety in the Great Lakes and starting a movement opposing the expansion and use of tar sands oil. “The oil and gas industry has been able to get away with business as usual for a long time without too many people asking questions, including our regulators.” Wallace says. “Now people are asking the important questions and demanding answers and, in many cases, demanding change.”
Environmental Defence Canada
Thirty-year-old Adam Scott learned in high school about the changing climate: “Climate change is a generational issue,” he says, “and it bothers me that older generations are leaving this as a legacy to future generations.”
He got his start as an activist by leading youth to U.N. climate meetings. Now he is the climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence in Ontario, working to stop Enbridge Pipeline 9 (if passed, Line 9 would flow east from Alberta through parts of New England).
He cites the Kalamazoo oil spill as an example of what can go wrong with even the “safest” pipeline. “The pipeline that broke in Michigan feeds Line 9,” he says. “There is a very real possibility that a spill like the one in Kalamazoo could happen along Line 9. Even if it were a minor spill, the oil would reach Lake Ontario.”