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Bellingham Takes A Stand Against Tar Sands

August 2010

Cover Story

Bellingham Takes A Stand Against Tar Sands

by Aaron Sanger

Aaron Sanger practiced law for individuals and small businesses harmed by large corporations in Austin, Texas for 20 years before becoming a full-time environmental campaign organizer. He is now the Director of U.S. campaigns with the nonprofit environmental organization ForestEthics. He lives in Bellingham with his wife, Michele, and daughter, Talya, and co-owns a small business called Living Earth Herbs that specializes in organic herbal remedies.

Bellingham recently distinguished itself—and set a strong positive example for other communities—by clearly and unequivocally taking a stand against Canada’s Tar Sands oil and fuels derived from this oil. This action followed two months of consideration, including input from the community and a well-attended forum devoted to public discussion of the Tar Sands.

Bellingham’s decision to minimize fuel from refineries using oil from Canada’s Tar Sands was big news in Canada. Almost every major Canadian daily newspaper published articles on the decision—the first of its kind by a U.S. city. CBC television reported live from Bellingham. More than a week after the city council unanimously passed its resolutions against the Tar Sands, sponsoring City Councilmember Jack Weiss was still giving interviews to the Canadian media.

Canada is vitally interested in Bellingham’s position on Tar Sands because Canada’s economy and government have become dependent on the U.S. market for its toxic oil. And the U.S., in turn, has increased its consumption of Canadian Tar Sands oil partly because of growing unease with oil from Middle Eastern countries associated with terrorism against the U.S.

This trend in favor of Tar Sands oil is misguided. As John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Clinton, said recently in a PR event sponsored by Canada’s Tar Sands industry in Washington, DC:

“Oil extraction from [tar] sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive. These things are facts. Suggesting that this process can come close to approximating being ‘green’ is largely misleading or far too optimistic or both. It stands alongside ‘clean coal’ and error-free deep-water drilling as more PR than reality.”

Podesta’s assessment is based on the simple fact that ‘Tar Sands oil’ is not oil at all. It is a form of sludge that must be separated from soil, washed to eliminate toxic heavy metals and then chemically transformed before it can be used like oil. In the process, Boreal forests must be destroyed, four tons of soil must be dug up, three barrels of drinking water must be rendered undrinkable and prodigious amounts of natural gas must be burned—just to produce one barrel of the sludge. After that, more energy must be invested to turn the sludge into ‘synthetic oil’.

The net result is that one-third of the barrel’s energy must be consumed just to produce the barrel. Toxic lakes from Tar Sands operations have grown so large they can be seen from space. Communities living downstream from these lakes (and downwind from the extraction and ‘upgrading’ operations) have elevated levels of cancer. In the production phase alone, Tar Sands oil emits 3-5 times more greenhouse gas than conventional oil. In addition to this heavier carbon footprint, the Tar Sands also involve more toxic water discharges and more acid rain and smog-causing chemicals than conventional sources.

In short, to favor Tar Sands oil over Middle Eastern oil supports environmental terrorism in the name of avoiding support for political terrorism. This is a false choice that, fortunately, the Bellingham City Council rejected in its resolutions against Canada’s Tar Sands. Instead, as one of the resolutions urges, we need to move away from all “fossil-fuelled (sic) transportation.” Meanwhile, we should not get bogged down in Canadian Tar Sands. §

Editor’s note: The city’s resolutions (see page 10, vote 121 and 122) against Canada’s Tar Sands require future fuel contracts for Bellingham fleet vehicles to avoid fuels with higher than normal greenhouse gas footprints and higher than average environmental or social impacts, to minimize fuels produced by refineries taking feedstock from Canada’s Tar Sands and to give preference to fuels with lower than normal greenhouse gas footprints, all “where such effort is reasonably feasible.”

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