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"International Stop the Tar Sands Day" protest at the Canadian High Commission, London

Politics Not vetted story Vetted story London, Great Britain - 18 June 2011

A small group of environmental activists staged a vociferous protest this weekend outside the Canadian High Commission in Grosvenor Square against the huge and devastating ecological damage being wrought on the pristine Boreal forests of Alberta in Canada by international oil companies extracting so-called Tar Sands in order to extract bitumen which is then refined - at a huge energy cost - into crude oil.

This protest was a part of "International "Stop the Tar Sands" day, which saw co-ordinated protests happening in 30 countries worldwide. The London action included the laying down of bunches and wreaths of dead flowers to represent the devastated Albertan boreal forest and ancient wilderness. A spirited choir of women entertained us with their rendition of "Sludge, Sludge, Glorious Sludge", and a symbolic environmental activist was tarred and feathered by Big Oil, representing the huge number of migratory and indigenous wildfowl which have been poisoned by the toxic waste in the water ‘tailings’ left behind by the extraction process. It is reported that some local species of wildlife in Alberta are in danger of becoming extinct in the region.

The Canadian Tar Sands ‘Mega-Project’ is slated to be the greatest environmental calamity in the World, eclipsing the destruction of rainforest habitats.

Deep under the boreal forests of Alberta lie 140,000 square kilometres of bituminous sand. Exploration continues all over Canada to find more, but already it is estimated that Canada has enough proven oil reserves to put it in second place behind Saudi Arabia in the oil producer's league table, and already the USA is Canada’s best customer. However... to get at the tar sands Canada is ripping up vast areas of this pristine forest, laying it to waste and leaving behind an immense toxic wasteland. Furthermore the extraction process is much, much more energy intensive to extract and requires very intensive refining, all of which produces, it is estimated, 3 to 5 times the usual amount of greenhouse gasses, consuming as it does a vast amount of natural gas and locally-sourced fresh water.

The right-wing Canadian government led by the pugnacious Stephen Harper has thrown open the doors to the massive - and destructive - exploitation of huge expanses of Canadian wilderness in the rush to put Canada into the global league tables of oil exporting countries, but environmentalists, ecologists and indigenous First Nation peoples are warning that the price of this extraction is having a terrible effect on local wildlife and on human health. Though not scientifically proven beyond any doubt, it has been reported that there has been an alarming increase in unusual cancers and birth-defects amongst local populations affected by the huge volumes of pollution released into the environment by the extraction and refining processes that, apart from requiring up to 200 gallons of fresh water to produce a single 40 gallon drum of bitumen extracted from the sand, leaves behind waste water is so toxic that it cannot be allowed back into the local eco-system, so it is stored in many huge 'tailing ponds' carved out of the local landscape.

Apart from the enormous volume of migratory birds and local wildlife which have already been fatally poisoned on these tailing ponds - and will continue to die in huge numbers for as long as tar extraction continues in Canada - it was always inevitable that the toxic tailings would seep into the local water table and eco-system. Overflows and breaches are happening with alarming regularity, seeing rivers, streams and the water table - on which everyone in those regions depends on - poisoned with sulphur compounds and heavy metals.

There has been, as previously mentioned, an increase in non-typical cancers and birth deformities which local populations blame on this highly polluting heavy industry. This is aside from the many very serious explosions and tragic industrial accidents at refining and extraction sites. This oil comes at a heavy price, so it seems.

It may come as no surprise that oil company internal investigations regularly give the oil companies a clean bill of health, and the Canadian government isn't about to look this gift horse in the mouth, so rigorous independent government environmental impact assessment just isn't happening. The suffering local populations await costly independently commissioned scientific studies, which will be fought against tooth and nail by the legions of very expensive corporate attorneys employed by the oil companies who are allegedly accused of bullying, bribery and corruption and even physical intimidation in the region.

In an area with historically low employment, taking the Oil Companies' 30 pieces of silver is understandable but the problems don't just end there, as the multinationals have drafted in migrant and foreign labour to undercut wage bills, creating friction. The locals were promised jobs when the government and oil companies were flooding the region with propaganda and inducements, but now they have what they wanted they're not willing to pay good wages to the locals who now understandably feel betrayed. These armies of imported workers live weeks at a time in work camps in the remote wilderness, coming into the local towns during rest periods to let off steam. Alcohol and drug-related problems have followed the labour camps, causing havoc in local towns when the blue-collar workers come into town on furlough, and understandably many towns feel completely overwhelmed.

Conflict with the local First Nations is rampant; the oil companies are expanding the scale and pace of Tar Sands development way beyond what was originally promised. The bitumen extraction is under the jurisdiction of treaties that are supposed to ensure the First Nation lands are not taken from them by massive uncontrolled development, but that is exactly what is happening. The oil companies are wielding extraordinary power in the region and nobody from the Canadian government is paying any attention to the destruction of the First Nation peoples’ culture and way of life. Several First Nations are in direct conflict with federal and provincial governments over the cynical traducing of Aboriginal and Treaty rights and legal land title.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has been engaged in an all-out propaganda and lobbying assault on the European Union, trying to make the EU Commissioners accept imported Canadian bitumen extracted from the tar sands as a part of the impending 'Canada-European Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement' (CETA), which if completed as planned threatens to completely undermine hard fought-for strong climate policies right across Europe, but dedicated campaigners and activists are fighting hard to prevent this and are engaged in a David and Goliath battle to have Canadian bitumen included in the 'Fuel Quality Directive' (FQD) which would effectively see the bitumen banned from Europe on the basis of the ecological damage the extraction is causing and the Carbon Intensity Caps invoked by the extremely high amounts of carbon content released by end product oil made from the Tar Sands.

However, perpetual aggressive lobbying and coercion by the Canadians is weakening the current initial draft of the FQD. The Canadians do not want any reference to be made to tar sands in the FQD – they want it treated the same way as conventional oil, despite its huge carbon intensity. To add further pressure in a diplomatic pincer movement, the Canadian government is hinting that it might pull out of CETA if the EU dares set a separate and higher value for tar sands oil in terms of carbon footprint in the FQD.

There are several informed and concerned European members of Parliament who agree with the environmentalists, and they have recently been responsible for passing a resolution in the European Parliament that the EU should not bow to Canadian and Oil Company pressure, and to reiterate their concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and environmental destruction caused by the Tar Sands extraction, but this may only be a temporary bump in the road for the oil companies and the Canadians, who, having to watch their southern neighbours in the USA straddling the globe and flexing their military muscles in the interests of American business, desperately want the power and influence that always goes hand in glove with oil revenues, licensing fees and the albeit insultingly low rates of corporate taxation they will be levying on the oil companies.

CETA would give the major European multinationals Shell, Total and BP (who had promised ten years ago when they were desperately trying to re-brand themselves as being somehow "Green" that they wouldn't be joining in the rush to Canada), dramatic new powers by legislation which would give them a free hand to trample over the rights of indigenous peoples and undermine crucial social and environmental legislation in Europe and in Canada.

Under the proposed terms of CETA Investment Protections would be enshrined in law which could allow Canadian and European oil companies to force governments before completely unaccountable closed-door Trade Tribunals to settle disputes, including any attempt by the Canadian government to prevent the out-of-control rapacious expansion of the Canadian wilderness. In other words the oil giants would be free to ruin the entire eco-system for their personal profit, and then just walk away from the carnage once the very last drop of economically viable bitumen has been sucked out of the ground. It is this horrific scenario which motivates the campaigners.

UK Protests and direct actions simultaneously took place in London, Plymouth, Birmingham, Oxford, York, Bangor, Brighton, Norwich, Manchester and Bridport in Dorset.

For further reading on the Tar Sands campaigns, visit Stop Tar Sands

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