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William Amos Headshot

Exposing the Blind Side of the Ethical Oil Campaign

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It's unethical to allow caribou in Alberta to disappear under the boot print of unchecked tar sands developments. But the ethical oil campaign wants you to ignore that.

Proponents of the ethical oil argument want you to look away as the tar sands drive the boreal caribou to extinction, an animal so entangled with our country's history that it's etched on the back of our quarter. They want you to ignore the fact that the tar sands suck up water from the Athabasca River and spit out toxic sludge into tailing ponds. They even want you to close your eyes as the quest for oil swallows large patches of Boreal forest.

In northeastern Alberta, boreal caribou are under siege. Herds have declined by more than 70 per cent during the past 15 years. A 2010 Government of Alberta study found that the tar sands could make local caribou extinct in less than 40 years. Ecojustice is unwilling to let that happen. We went to federal court in June to fight for the caribou. Representing Pembina Institute and the Alberta Wilderness Association, we asked the court to force federal Environment Minister Peter Kent to recommend emergency protection of the critical habitat for the threatened caribou.

Victory came in July, when the federal court set aside the minister's decision not to recommend emergency protections and ordered the minister to reconsider the steps government was taking to protect the caribou and come to a new decision. The court said the minister's decision not to recommend emergency protection was contrary to the scientific evidence that exists about the threats facing caribou. The court also said that a recovery strategy to protect and recover woodland caribou was four years overdue and gave the minister until Sept. 1, 2011, to release a proposed recovery strategy.

We reviewed the proposed strategy, released on Aug. 26, and found that it will do little to protect caribou herds. The science is clear: if Alberta's boreal caribou herds are to survive, their habitat must be improved. The proposed strategy, however, makes no mention of improving habitat. Rather, it sacrifices further habitat destruction as long as there is a plan to stabilize the population. In effect, the strategy has written off the herds in Alberta.

All of this has occurred as the ethical oil publicity campaign urged the world to avert its gaze from the ecological disaster that is the tar sands. Fortunately, not everyone in the world is so easily distracted. On Oct. 4, the European Commission labelled the tar sands as a dirty source of fuel, one whose import they may eventually ban. Why did they do that? The European Union has made a commitment to lowering its carbon footprint. Importing fuels that are more environmentally damaging -- such as those that come from shale gas or tar sands -- would compromise this shift towards sustainability.

On the same day the EU labelled the tar sands a dirty source of fuel, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Scott Vaughan told Canadians that federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gases have failed. In his audit, Vaughan reported that while billions have been spent to cut emissions, pollution and emissions from tar sands projects have more than doubled in the last decade (and continue to grow). It's now unlikely that we'll meet our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and, even more alarming, the government has slashed its goal for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 90 per cent.

Time and again, the government's own studies say climate change will cost Canadians. Sometimes the costs are measured by the loss of critical habitat and threatened species. The boreal forest is our ally in the fight against climate change, moderating temperatures, producing oxygen and purifying our water. It's also home to majestic species like Alberta's boreal caribou. Sometimes the cost of climate change is in dollars and cents. A federal advisory panel said in September that ignoring climate change could cost Canada between $21 billion and $43 billion per year by 2050. The panel is an independent organization whose members were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own government.

The ethical oil campaign often glosses over the price we're paying to develop the tar sands. Through calculated diversion and distraction techniques, they've tried to shift the focus to oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran or Venezuela and their appalling records on human rights. They want you to support Canadian oil because it is ethical. But how ethical is an industry that destroys our boreal forests, pollutes our water and drives species, such as the boreal caribou, to extinction? It's time we stop pointing fingers at other countries and take a long hard look at how we are acting in our own backyard.

Will Amos and Melissa Gorrie are staff lawyers for Ecojustice, Canada's leading nonprofit using the law to protect and restore the environment.

Learn more at www.ecojustice.ca.

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