Some are calling it a "smear job", while others are applauding the National Geographic's rather sobering 20-page publication on the Alberta tar sands, titled "Scraping Bottom." Either way, the timing is brilliant.
Dubbed by some as the "most destructive project on Earth" - scarring it visibly from space - there's no doubt that the tar sands extraction industry has a huge environmental footprint, which even President Obama could not help but acknowledge during his visit to Ottawa last week, to the chagrin of some Canadian officials. Many of them, from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on down, are attempting to control the potential damage in the lead up to the ministerial visit to the U.S. next week - but it's almost like watching the frantic efforts of a doctor as the patient is hemorraging to death."I'm proud of the oil sands. It's a world leader. National Geographic is not going to teach me any lessons about the oil sands," said Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff in a defensive response to the article. Canada's Environment Minister Jim Prentice went on to dismiss the feature as "just one article."
But it's just one article in a magazine with an audience of 50 million people worldwide. Beginning with a three-page spread of an aerial photo capturing untouched boreal forest — the "before" scene — and flipping over to the "after" photo of a once-similar landscape disfigured by oil-slicked roads and murky ponds as far as the eye can see — well, it's a public relations disaster, both for the "call-us-the-oil-sands" industry and for the Canadian politicians who support the project.
Tar sands are the turning point
The article is pretty balanced in showing the many sides of the issue: jobs are on the line; the future of communities dependent on the tar sands industry, such as Fort McMurray, would be left in limbo. But the lopsided equation of squeezing oil out of these sands speaks for itself:
Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. [..]
The oil sands are still a tiny part of the world's carbon problem—they account for less than a tenth of one percent of global CO2 emissions—but to many environmentalists they are the thin end of the wedge, the first step along a path that could lead to other, even dirtier sources of oil: producing it from oil shale or coal. (National Geographic article)
In any case, as one editorial noted, this may be the "clubbing the baby-seal moment" for the Alberta tar sands.
"Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world," says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. "Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we're willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil."(National Geographic article)
[update: thanks to readers who pointed out that the above pictures are not exactly before and after - one is of a similar but untouched landscape in northern Alberta - the other is of the Suncor Millenium mine, just north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.]
More Links on The Tar Sands
Obama Admits Canadian Tar Sands' Carbon Footprint a Problem (Phew...)
Canadian Tar Sands Look Like Tolkein's Mordor Says UN Water Advisor
Tar Sand Investments Could Be Oil Industry's Version of the Sub-Prime Meltdown
Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth
A Picture is Worth... The Alberta Tar Sands
Tar Sands, Banking Crisis & Peak Oil - Mired At The Crossroads
Tar/Oil Sands Industry Readying Public Relations Campaign
Prentice defends oilsands following National Geographic article (video)