03/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Moral Case Against Tar Sands

Everyone (well everyone who cares about climate change) wanted to hear what President Obama would say about Alberta's tar sands when he hopped border to Canada. Everyone was disappointed. In his meeting with Prime Minister Harper they glossed over the issue, offering only the promise of a "clean energy dialogue."

There's no question that tar sands extraction is a climate catastrophe. The tars sands mining procedure releases at least three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as oil production, and the industry will be emitting 100 million tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2012. Some would say it's "the biggest global warming crime ever seen."

Lost in all the climate talk, though, is the fact that on the local level, tar sands extraction and processing is one of the greatest social and ecological injustices of our time. Few realize how ugly things have gotten in northen Alberta. Andrew Nikiforuk, writing for OnEarth last year, explained tar sands development like this:

Described by the United Nations Environment Program as one of the world's top "environmental hot spots," the project will eventually transform a boreal forest the size of Florida into an industrial sacrifice zone complete with lakes full of toxic waste and man-made volcanoes spewing out clouds of greenhouse gases.

The impact on local communities, mostly First Nation tribes like the Cree, is nothing short of appalling. Visiting a Cree village and speaking to one of its Elders, Nikiforuk writes, "MacDonald doesn't have much faith that industry or government will reclaim the toxic ponds that surround his home. About 90 percent of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for mining ends up behind massive tailings dams or dikes...All these ponds contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), naphthenic acids, heavy metals, salts, and bitumen." The tailings are leaking into the Athabasca too, poisoning the indigenous fish that locals have long relied on for food.

In some heartbreaking interviews with tar sands activist MacDonald Stainsby, local residents reveal that cancer rates in their communities are up, wildlife is disappearing, and river levels are dropping constantly.

So disturbed by ruin of the region, Alberta's Catholic bishop has written a lengthy letter arguing that the tar sands development "cannot be morally justified."

The local impact is under-covered, and more people should be able see for themselves how grave this social and ecological injust is. Read Nikiforuk"s piece, or check out the absolutely astonishing 15-part VBS series "Toxic Alberta," which covers the tar sands from every angle. (Somehow, in this wild media world, Vice is producing better in-depth -- and engaging -- environmental journalism than nearly anyone else.)

The climate argument against tar sands development should be enough. But if more people understood the conditions on the ground -- and in the towns -- in Northern Alberta, the outcry against this dirtiest of fossil fuels would be a lot harder to ignore.

This post is adapted from an article on Greenlight. 2009-02-20-greenlightbadge.jpg