Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Abuse of Creation: Bishop Joins Voices Challenging Expanding Oil Sands Extraction Canada

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Abuse of Creation: Bishop Joins Voices Challenging Expanding Oil Sands Extraction Canada

Article excerpt

Joe McMorrow never paid much attention to Syncrude Canada's oil sands extraction project in Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, prior to 2000 because the company maintained just two plat sites then. "Somehow at that level, it was manageable," explained McMorrow, a permanent deacon at St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville near Edmonton, and volunteer social justice coordinator for Albert St. Paul diocese.

Oil sands, also known as tar sands, or extra heavy oil, are naturally occurring mixtures of sand or clay, water, and an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum known as bitumen. They are found in large amounts in many countries throughout the world, but are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela.

About eight years ago, however, McMorrow, who was then a Fort McMurray resident, discovered that Syncrude Canada was expanding. More and more of Fort McMurray's lush green boreal forests were degenerating into "a wasteland. It was just huge."

Most of that oil from the desolate moonscape goes south to the United States.

The oil sands extraction sites in Fort McMurray and nearby Fort McKay and along the Athabasca River are the world's biggest oil deposit after Saudi Arabia, according to a 2009 National Geographic article. The U.S. Energy Information Administration identifies the sites as "consistently the top supplier of U.S. oil imports."

McMorrow was not the only one who has continued to worry. Yes many young people were benefiting from the high-paying jobs in the oil industry, Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam conceded last year. "On the one hand, oil sands are good for the economy, good for jobs, but bad for our health and bad for our way of living. People are dying," he told Joe Bianchi, the Writer for a policy briefing paper, "Indigenous Peoples and Oil and Gas Development," issued last year by KAIROS, Canada's ecumenical church agency. Deaths of young people in their 30s and 40s have been linked to the oil sands, the paper said.

The report underlines tribal member's concern about the increase in crime, social problems, substance abuse and family violence, in addition to an increase in traffic and air, water and noise pollution.

Besides the sickness in humans, wildlife suffers as well. Two years ago, 1,600 birds ad in Syncrude Canada's hazardous waste tailings ponds.

Within Catholic circles, during the past couple of years environmentally conscious activists urged St. Paul Bishop Luc Bouchard to speak out.

In January 2009 Bouchard wrote a pastoral letter, "The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands," challenging the moral legitimacy of the project. He called for a moratorium on new operations and expansions until adequate environmental protection measures are established.

Bouchard's missive flew directly to the point. "The ecological crisis is evident in many parts of Canada. Our wasteful consumerist lifestyle, combined with political and industrial shortsightedness and neglect, are damaging our air, land and water. ... It is impossible for me to ignore the moral problem created by the proposed $150 billion oil sands developments ... because projects are in 'my own backyard' and have aroused strong ethical criticism," he wrote.

Oil sands extraction, said the bishop, is a complex operation, and apart from the environmental issue of polluting one barrel of water in order to produce a barrel of oil, the toxicity of the tailings ponds also represents a long-term threat to the region's aquifers and to the quality of water in the Athabasca River, due to the danger of seepage or a sudden catastrophic failure of a pond's enclosure.

Natural gas is also a factor, according to the bishop. "Very large amounts of it are required to heat water in order to process bitumen. By 2011 it is estimated that the then existing oil sands plants will bum enough natural gas to annually release 80 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. …

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