Welcome to Hell: The Corporate Obscenity of Canadian Tar Sands

In 1987, Belinda Carlisle had a number one hit with the song, Heaven is a Place on Earth. Today, we are going to a place on Earth that bears a far closer resemblance to Hell. As the right-wing’s imperial warmongers seize on the Boston bombing to renew their calls for a capitalist (sorry, Christian) holy war against radical Islam, the planet faces a far larger catastrophe that somehow escapes their attention. For while the American empire’s most aggressive propagandists sell their gullible audiences a future of additional bloodshed in the Middle East, the question of which worldview ultimately prevails (no prizes for guessing) pales into insignificance compared to the question of whether our planet will continue to support us in the manner to which we have become accustomed. And the President’s forthcoming decision on approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will send the rest of humanity a clear signal about our prospects for survival.

Before we look at the horrifying destruction being wrought by our friends to the north, it is essential to ponder the backdrop against which this corporate insanity is playing out. A recent article in The Atlantic summarized a new study of Earth’s climate history that paints a terrifying picture. Using an analysis of oxygen isotopes preserved in the shells of fossilized marine plankton, a group of scientists led by Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University found that global temperatures are changing at an astonishing rate. Marcott’s study confirmed the earlier finding of Michael Mann (referred to as the “hockey stick” because of the shape of the graph) but looked at a far longer timeline of over 11,000 years. While average temperatures have been warmer than today for one fifth of this time, there has never been anything remotely like the current rate of change:

“What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand,” he said. “In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we’ve seen in the whole Holocene,” referring to the current geologic time period, which began around 11,500 years ago.

In other words, Mann’s hockey stick is about to whack us over the head. Hard. And how does homo sapiens – the thinking ape – respond to that?

With this:

Tar Sands Mining

This image is just part of one tar sands mine in Alberta. There are currently ten mines in operation, each one sprawling over an area equal to metropolitan Victoria, B.C. A further forty mines are undergoing the approval process. Strip-mining of the Canadian tar sands is the biggest industrial project in the world. In the image below, the yellow piles are massive mountains of sulfur – truly a bounty fit for Satan himself – and in the distance are tailings ponds full of toxic, contaminated water.

Tar Sands Mining Operation

Tar sands mining currently produces 475 million gallons of toxic waste each day – nine times more than the oil produced. The tailings ponds are unlined and leak an estimated 3 million gallons per day into the groundwater. Birds landing on the ponds frequently die, but they are not the only creatures suffering. Clear-cutting of the boreal forest destroys habitat for countless wild species (including the mammals that American hunters have driven to the brink of extinction south of the border, like the wolverine). The deforestation occurring here is second in severity only to the ongoing rape of the Amazon rainforest and similarly counter-productive, destroying a valuable carbon sink:

Tar Sands Deforestation

But who cares about the animals? After all, we slaughter ten billion of them every year without batting an eyelid. And the very same warmongers who see no spiritual dilemma in calling for a holy war against people who worship a different God have also convinced themselves that the Earth, and all its creatures, were given by their God for their use and amusement. (Little wonder that the gun debate, such as it is, wastes no time worrying about the animals that are killed by America’s guns.) So long as fat, diabetic Americans can drive SUVs to McDonald’s and get a Big Mac for a few bucks, everything is right with the world.

Approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is pivotal to the future of the Albertan adventure, for the mines must have a way to transport their ill-gotten gain to market, and Alberta isn’t exactly on anybody’s back door. Although there is a proposal to build an alternative pipeline to the west, that project is almost as frightening to engineers and accountants as it is to environmentalists, requiring passage over the Rockies to the Pacific. The southern route to Gulf Coast refineries is really the make-or-break option upon which the fate of the whole enterprise depends. The Canadian government is lobbying Washington ferociously, and its efforts appear to be paying off. The latest word from the U.S. State Department is that, pipeline or no pipeline, the tar sands will be exploited anyway, so the resulting release of greenhouse gases is inevitable. Phew! It’s always nice to know that it’s not our fault, isn’t it? But seriously, what would one expect from a department that regarded the death-by-sanctions of 500,000 Iraqi children as “worthwhile”? The phony election drama in which the President bought off a few Prius-driving Democrats in California while House Republicans promised job creation took place within a regime that values corporate profit far above the lives of demonized humans, never mind a future that is kept out of sight and out of mind.

Development of the Keystone XL pipeline would add to the atmosphere the equivalent of 51 coal-powered power plants each year. Beyond the appalling costs entailed in its extraction, burning heavy tar sands oil releases more carbon than conventional oil. As Dr. James Hansen, the former long-time head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, explains:

The science of climate change, and of human-caused climate change in particular, has become clear over the past several years, and yet the crystal clear implications of this for policy are being ignored by government.

It’s a simple fact, we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without enormous unacceptable consequences for young people and future generations….

As soon as we begin to put a price on carbon that makes them pay their price to society, tar sands oil would be the first to be eliminated.

But that is not the way our world works. The true price of the tar sands will never be paid by the corporations that produce them; it will be paid by all of us in the form of a permanently degraded planet. Satan will have his pile of sulfur, and, more importantly, he will have his pile of gold.

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