Taking our heads out of the sand

Local tragedies like that which took place in Lac-Mégantic should not stop us from taking stock of the global tragedy that we're sinking into. 

Installation pétrolière à Fort McMurray, en Alberta, comme observée par la délégation québécoise. Photo courtesy of Mario Jean Oil Refinery in Fort McMurray, Alberta, as observed by the Québec delegation.


We write this letter as witnesses. Witnesses of a social and ecological catastrophe that words cannot express: we have returned from Fort McMurray in Alberta, the nerve centre for tar sands oil production. Welcomed by the local indigenous community and accompanied by hundreds of citizens from all over North America, we walked into the center of the largest industrial site on the planet. Many of us had also visited the rigs of oil giant Suncor, by their own invitation.

What we heard and saw marked us forever. We return profoundly saddened and enraged. The size of the devastation created by this industry staggers the mind of whoever visits the site and the numbers confirm this sentiment. Each day, the production of tar sands oil spills 11 million litres of toxic water -- 4 billion litres a year -- and emits the equivalent of 15 million cars' worth of greenhouse gases.

This is without counting the terrifying social effects on local populations. In some native communities in the region, cancer rates have exploded, now exceedng by 30% the average rate for Canada. The industrial development is carried out with total disregard for First Nations communities : the Cree community of Lake Beaver has recorded no less than 20,000 violations of their territorial treaties. In more than one case, 80% of tribal territory is unaccessable to them at one time or another during the year due to tar sands oil production. Here as there, First Nations communities are completely ignored by industrial development.

Pipelines are necessary to expand production

This is still not enough to satisfy the profit-thirsty oil companies and Harper government, who plan to double the production of tar sands oil by 2020 and triple it by 2030. There is still one major obstacle for this megalomaniacal project: to produce all this oil -- the goal is 5 million barrels a day -- there must be a way to transport it. In order to do so, they need pipelines: no pipelines, no expansion. This is the basis for many new production sites that have sprung up all over during the last few years. Luckily, citizen mobilization, especially coming from native communities, has succeeded in slowing or blocking these destructive projects. In the west, the Northern Gateway site was blocked -- at least for now -- following mobilization by the British Colombian community, and in the south, the Keystone XL will likely be rejected by Obama due to its harmful effects on the climate. The avaricious gaze of the oil companies has thus fallen on us, as they want to create a corridor to ferry the heavy tar sands oil to the east. Hence the pressure put on the Québec government to give the green light to the line 9 Enbridge oil project, which would augment and reverse the direction of the flow of oil between Sarnia and Montréal. Last week, the Alberta government announced it would give another 5 million dollars to encourage another pipeline towards Québec, to give another measure of their determination.

The equation is simple. More pipelines, more tar sands. More tar sands, more greenhouse gases: the oil produced in Fort McMurray emits between three and five times more than conventionally-produced oil. The time has come for the Québécois to seriously question this decision. Do you want to encourage tar sands development by approving the line 9 pipeline? The consultation promised by the Marois government must take into account these recognized facts, and from there, impose a moratorium.


Global Warming

Since the Mégantic catastrophe, oil lobbies and their allies have been singing the praises of pipelines. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Since 1975, Albertan pipelines have generated 28,666 oil spills. That's two spills a day on average. We must refuse to choose between these two catastrophes. Local tragedies like that which took place in Lac-Mégantic should not keep us from taking stock of the global tragedy that we're sinking into. There will never be a "clean oil". The longer we wait to turn towards a more ecological solution, the worse the consequences will be and the higher the cost. Native communities must of course be at the center of this transitional process, them who are so often the first victims of the frantic extraction of energetic resources.

A few weeks ago, we learned that the amount of CO2 in the air had reached the highest level it had been since 2 to 5 million years ago: 400 parts per million (ppm). According to the International Energy Agency, we are headed towards a global warming of 3 to 5ºC, that is, 2º more than the critical threshold held by the scientific community. The reserves of companies and countries that produce oil contain already five times the combustable fossil fuels that would be necessary to bring us to that limit. We are going to have to accept leaving the oil in the ground.

We return from this trip with a clear and unanimous assessment, which the Lac-Mégantic tragedy has just confirmed. It is imperative that a social debate take place quickly, not just on the Line 9 reversal plan and the rules of transport for petroleum products, but on a larger scale, on the creation of a real strategy of energetic transition, one that aims to quickly extract us, in a rational and effective manner, from the energivore model that we have used for far too long. A serious and clear plan which does not seek individual guilt but works by the mobilization of our collective institutions, notably that of Hydro-Québec.

We have become collectively dependant on oil and we desperately need to get clean. Breaking with this dependance will be adventageous at short, medium and long term. Let's not wait until circumstances impose an even more brutal shock to our societies. Let's start today, now that we have the means to do so progressively and democratically.



Members of the Québécois delegation at Fort McMurry:

Michel Lambert, Alternatives; Dominic Champagne, director; Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, student; Patrick Bonin, Greenpeace; Éric Pineault, professor; Widia Larivière and Melissa Mollen Dupuis, Idle No More Québec; Geneviève Puskas, Équiterre; Julie Marquis, CSN; Marie-Josée Béliveau, Coalition vigilance oléduc (CoVo); Ethan Cox, head of the Québec office of rabble.ca; Arij Riahi, independant journalist; Tim McSorley, Coop-media; Mario Jean, photographer; Nydia Dauphin