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The Oil-ympics -- Canada's Darker Side


By Liz Barratt-Brown

Those of us living in the Washington D.C. area have been bombarded by an ad from the Canadian American Business Council during the Olympic’s coverage on NBC. While the ad features mainly pictures of daisy fields, blue skies, and happy children, and a narrator extolling the special relationship enjoyed by the U.S. and Canada, there is also a fleeting reference to “supplying oil from its vast oil sands and other reserves” with an image of a beaker with a clear, clean looking liquid. The reference is so fleeting that most people listening don’t hear it at first. But the thinking by the ad’s proponents must be that by hearing it over and over between figure skating twizzles and downhill carving, we’ll associate the tar sands with those pretty flowers, clean air, happy children and a clean beaker of something that looks more like maple syrup than oil.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The happy daisy fields are in fact strip-mined chasms, extending hundreds of feet into earth that was once the anchor for a beautiful forest full of rivers, birds and fish. The air is polluted with sulfur, acid rain, and heavy metals at the nearby “up-graders”.  The children of the downstream Fort Chipewyan community are dying of rare cancers. And that brown liquid can’t possibly be bitumen, the gooey, dirty main product from excavating oil from the tar sands.

And while Alberta has been promoting the Province through its “Alberta House” in Vancouver and on its luxury train trip between Vancouver and Whistler, Alberta’s native people downstream from the tar sands and their native and environmental allies have been protesting – decrying the impact of the tar sands. Thousands marched to the Alberta House just as the Premier from Alberta was set to make his opening remarks. The Dogwood Alliance, a local British Columbia group fighting a tar sands pipeline through the Province, introduced protesters dressed as a giant polar bear named Aurora to the Olympic press scrum. 

Sierra Club launched a “Love Winter – Hate the Oil Sands” campaign. Athletes, like Mike Richter, the Silver medalist hockey goalie and NHL hockey star, also weighed in – here is Richter on the tar sands from a Sierra Club press release: “We can’t seriously combat global warming while getting fuel from the world’s dirtiest source.” His full interview is here in a Sierra Club radio interview. Alison Gannett, the champion free-skier who also has aligned herself with the Sierra Club campaign, posted a blog on the website of her Save Our Snow Foundation, stating: “Even as Vancouver is gearing up for the excitement of the winter games, next door, the province of Alberta is pursuing a dirty energy policy that is speeding global warming and could ultimately ruin skiing as we know it.” The Dirty Oil Sands website has an excellent graphic of a downhill skiier getting mired in the stuff. And finally, when you go onto the Canadian American Business Council website from Google, you’ll see a Friends of the Earth sponsored ad entitled “No more Dirty Tar Sands” sitting right across from their site.

This string of events comes on the heels of two trend-setting companies, Bed Bath and Beyond and Whole Foods, announcing their decision to move away from tar sands oil in the transportation of their goods. Having worked on corporate campaigns for many years, I know firsthand how difficult it is to get companies to wade into a controversial issue. It is much easier to move to solutions, like improving efficiency or literally changing light bulbs, but much more difficult to take on the status quo fossil fuels, especially this one where reaction is swift and biting. But, as the Globe and Mail editorial said that followed, a week after the announcement and the inevitable backlash, “…Canada can ill afford to be caught wrongly assuming that the world will pay willingly, and dearly, for its oil. A more responsive approach would mean accelerating research into cleaner oil extraction – especially carbon capture and storage – and investing more in renewable energy….the Shells, Wal-Marts, and Whole Foods of the World are not waiting for cleaner energy. Neither should Canada.”

Those of us watching the “Oil-ympics” know that there is much to do to clean up this darker side of the relationship so ballyhooed by the Canadian American Business Council. 

Original post on the NRDC Switchboard


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