How the oil sands are like cancer

The Athabasca oil sands are like a tumour growing in a human body.

A tumour is very successful in a certain way. These cells divide rapidly and can keep growing forever as long as they are provided with food and oxygen. Ultimately, however, a tumour grows to the point where it starts to threaten the vital systems of its host organism. The tumour needs oxygen, but has no respect for the continued functioning of the lungs that pull it from the air or the heart that circulates it around the body. Similarly, if we emit enough greenhouse gas pollution we will threaten the vital systems of the planet – systems that human beings depend upon just as fully as they depend on their own lungs. Just as a tumour can depend on oxygen and food while remaining entirely ignorant about the conditions required for their continued availability, humanity can smash the parts of the world that we rely upon without realizing we’re doing it. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that we are improving our own situation, by carefully counting what is being gained (like nice houses and jet fuel) while ignoring what is being lost (stable sea levels, countless species, predictable weather).

As a tumour grows, the deranged cells inside of it need oxygen to stay alive. It tricks the body into growing blood vessels to feed it. Similarly, the oil sands require pipelines to get their product to market. Denying these pipelines is the most plausible way of constraining the growth of the oil sands, given that the federal government is doing everything possible to encourage their unlimited growth and provincial governments are similarly crazed with the promise of immediate profits and in denial about the risks of climate change.

Tumours are most easily and effectively dealt with early. The same is true for the oil sands. Right now, they have a strong shield of political protection because of how profitable it is to sell this oil (when you ignore the damage it does, as our economic calculations usually do). That political shield grows stronger with each new oil sands mine and each new pipeline. The more people whose financial future depends on continued oil sands output, the more challenging it will be politically for Canada to do the right thing and progressively shut the fossil fuel industry down.

When it comes to treating this tumour, Canada is still at the stage of delusional pretending. That won’t be true forever. At some point, we will have a government that isn’t determined to do everything possible to keep the tumour growing. At some point, we will also have a world in which powerful governments accept that climate change is an enormous problem and that sorting it out means moving beyond fossil fuels. Except in a suicidal scenario where we keep burning oil while the planet’s ecosystems visibly collapse all around us, there will come a day within our lifetimes when these oil sands facilities are progressively shut down and the world moves to forms of energy that are compatible with a stable climate.

That’s part of why victories right now count for so much. Delaying the Keystone XL pipeline has done a bit to slow the wild growth phase of the tumour. Blocking other pipelines, particularly the Northern Gateway pipeline, would further constrain that growth. Blocking these pipes is our best treatment option, until we get a government that is serious about producing a sharp reduction in Canada’s total climate pollution and develops and deploys an effective mechanism to make that happen.

2 thoughts on “How the oil sands are like cancer

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    The government is pulling out all the stops to get these projects approved. The budget bill includes sweeping changes to the cumbersome procedures that govern environmental approval of energy projects. These now involve up to 40 federal departments and agencies. Under the bill, only those directly involved would be able to intervene in hearings; fishery habitat will no longer automatically be considered; and most assessments will have to be completed within 18 months. The federal government would have the power to overrule the energy board, but also to cede the assessment process to the provinces. These changes could quicken the prospects of big hydropower schemes in Manitoba, Labrador, British Columbia and Quebec, aimed at exporting electricity to the United States.

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