Sometimes, working on climate and energy issues in Canada can sometimes get a little repetitive, but every now and then something comes forward that is just so mind-boggling, so ridiculous that I have to stop and ask myself "are they (expletive) serious?"
Wednesday morning I woke up, opened the paper and saw a full page spread on plans to create massive End Pit Lakes, a process that involved filling the massive, visible from space, open pit mines created by tar sands extraction in Northern Alberta with tailings and water.
According to industry this is a long term solution to both tailings ponds, one of which currently sits behind the second largest damn on the planet, and massive open pit mine sites. One day, according to reports, this whole area could be Alberta's very own "Lake District," that is if this actually works, which it is going to take around a century to find out.
Take a minute to let that sink in.
The fossil fuel industry is effectively asking us to let them perform a 100-year-long experiment in Northern Alberta. Just to take stock, this is the same industry responsible for the deaths of hundreds of ducks, the same industry that built a three sided tailings pond, the same industry responsible for the 2009 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Kalamazoo spill, and so on. The creation of tailings ponds lacked the foresight to figure out how to deal with them, the digging of gargantuan open pit mines, the same, and the "Lake District" solution once again.
I wish this was an isolated incident, but in fact this is indicative of the modus operandi of the entire fossil fuel industry. As a friend of mine stated at a talk at the University of British Colombia last week, this industry is in the business of taking risks that are gambling our future. The entire industry, when compared with climate science, is basically a cosmic gamble that somehow, someway a silver bullet solution, like those advocated by billionaire industrialist Richard Branson, will be miraculously discovered. The reality though is that real solutions take time, investment, and require a shift in our priorities that will challenge the core of the status quo, especially that of how we produce and consume energy.
The first step to solving the problem of tailings ponds, massive pits, and the massive amount of emissions created by these projects, is to stop building more mines. Common sense would dictate that if you don't know how to clean up a mess, you should do everything you can to prevent that mess. If the oil industry does not have a foolproof plan for remediating the damage they have already done, the first thing that should happen is that they should be immediately stopped from causing any more damage.
Right now, that means putting an immediate stop on projects like the Shell Jackpine expansion, and the Pierre River Mine. Not only are these projects set to exacerbate a problem, that industry's best solution to is a one hundred year crapshoot, but they are also facing a constitutional challenge from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Why is that so important? The logic is the same, industry is asking Canada to violate treaty rights. They are asking us to gamble that either the constitutionally enshrined relationship between Indigenous peoples and the crown can be rebuilt a hundred years down the road or worse, and more likely, that if these projects continue to expand at their proposed rate that communities on the frontlines wont be there to fight them in a hundred years.
This is gamble that former Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice decried when he spoke out against the failure of government and industry to consult with Indigenous communities.
An empty pit filled with tailings and water is being lauded as cheaper than attempts at real remediation, but it's not a solution. It's definitely not a fully remediated Boreal forest, an ecosystem that takes hundreds of years to develop complex webs of life and provides key planetary life support systems. But more than that, and at the bottom line, an industry whose top five players made nearly $140 billion last year should not be proposing the cheapest solution, they should be proposing the best.
More than that, people in Canada need only to look at the Sydney Tar Ponds for a vision of what this sort of short sighted project can lead to, where figuring out a clean up plan has taken a quarter century, without any guarantees that even the current plan will work.
Of course, expecting these corporations to do the right thing is part of why we're in this mess in the first place. This plan shows plain an simple that when it comes to environmental protections, tar sands operators, and the fossil fuel industry as a whole, is more interested in the cheapest, easiest answers, not the right ones. Real solutions are only going to come when people work together to build solutions, and to take away the social capital of corporations who are will to risk the interests of people and our planet in favour of increasing their already massive profit margins.
Gatherings like this fall's PowerShift 2012 are meant to build that power, to connect young people in a way like never before in order to create these solutions between youth from diverse backgrounds all across Canada.
Believe me, we need it. They are betting the air, water and land. They are betting on changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere, and they are asking us to loan them 100 years for their next bet, not a good prospect for an industry that's been a losing gambler lately.