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Will we ruin the Canadian tar sands?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted June 26, 2006

The Washington Post is wailing about the environmental ruination of that great ecological wonder, the Canadian tar sands.

Canada's Athabasca Basin holds more hydrocarbons (oil) than anyplace else in the world. It has a huge patch of tarry goo, the remains of a once-vast inland lake, spotted amongst 40,000 square miles of jack pine and black spruce growing amid mosquito-rich swamps. The same evergreen-and-swamp vista extends in a broad band for more than 2000 miles, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the shores of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast.

The Athabasca's population density is less than 4 people per square mile.

The oil used to pool along the banks of the Athabasca River, where the Indians smeared it to waterproof the seams of their birch-bark canoes.

Today, the Athabasca is the world's best hope to bridge the gap between today's fossil-powered energy system and the energy system of tomorrow, be it nuclear, solar, fusion or something not yet tried.

The Post doesn't want any bridge. Its front page on May 31 headlined "Canada Pays Environmentally for U.S. Oil Thirst: Huge Mines Rapidly Draining Rivers, Cutting Into Forests, Boosting Emissions." Author Doug Struck quotes Elsie Fabian, an elder in an Indian community who says, "The river used to be blue. Now it's brown. . .The air is bad." She complains that she can see steam from a strip mine 10 miles away.

"Giant machines cleave the earth into a cratered moonscape," writes Struck, who says eco-groups are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the tar sands oil production.

Northern Canada, of course, has lots of water. The whole region is covered with rivers, lakes and swamps. The oil companies say they re-use their water up to 18 times, and then store it in lagoons -- though they've yet to figure out how to treat the wastewater other than just letting it evaporate.

They're required to restore the "moonscape" after they get the oil out of the sands.

Indian chief Jim Boucher says his people are creating native-owned companies to provide trucking, catering and other services to the oil companies. Boucher says "the hunting, trapping, fishing is gone." That may be true right around Ft. McMurray, but if his Indians are really keen on hunting and trapping instead of paychecks, there are thousands of square miles of Canadian wilderness not far away.

The tar sands development is "putting unacceptable pressure on the environment," says Julia Langer, of World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

That's pretty much what we heard from the California Wilderness Coalition when it sued to stop a federally approved geothermal power project at Medicine Lake in northeastern California two years ago. The two proposed power plants would impact only 15 acres each, and would produce no greenhouse gases. Remember, it's the eco-activists who tell us greenhouse gases are the most important environmental calamity in the world. Nor would the geothermal plants produce any radioactive wastes. The plants would even feed into the existing Bonneville power grid without any extensive new transmission lines.

If the activists and their media allies are protesting the Alberta tar sands and California's Medicine Lake geothermal plants, what option does society have left -- short of mud huts and darkness?

We'll just have to take the advice of Patrick Moore, one of the original Greenpeace co-founders, who now says, "Build safe nuclear power plants and reprocess their fuel."

That would leave the Athabasca Basin to the blackflies, the mosquitoes, and whatever Indians still want to track and shoot the moose. Good luck to them and the World Wildlife Fund -- which we assume will relocate its headquarters from chic Toronto to the tarry banks of the irreplaceable Athabasca.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

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