See the film on the Alberta Oil Sands Project this week at the Vail Film Festival
The largest source of imported oil for the U.S., providing Americans with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day, doesn't come from a country in the Middle East - it comes from Canada. Yep, you read it correctly, nature-loving, tree-hugging, maple-granola-crunching Canada.
The Alberta Oil Sands Project, however, couldn't be more opposite a picture than what the Alberta tourism chamber likes to paint. The Oil Sands Project is the biggest energy construction site on the planet. Every major oil company on Earth is in the tar sands - BP, Shell, Total, Statoil, Exxon, Chevron and China's Sinopec. It lies under a wilderness area larger than Greece, and from above, it looks like a huge black eye on Mother Earth.
The comparison is accurate because, like a black eye, the Oil Sands are indicative of a lot of pain inflicted on the Earth at both a global level and a local level - spewing out record volumes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and poisoning local rivers with cancer-causing toxins and dotting a pristine Boreal ecosystem with nasty wastewater lakes. If the Oil Sands were a country, their carbon emissions would equal Switzerland's. In a full-color feature, National Geographic called the tar sands "satanic mills," and when leaders such as President Obama refer to kicking the addiction to "dirty oil," it's usually the tar sands they're talking about.
The Oil Sands' story and their dire environmental consequences are told in the documentary "Tipping Point: The End of Oil," and it screens at the Vail Film Festival this week. (For show times, see info box). Written and directed by Tom Radford and Niobe Thompson, the story begins down the Athabasca River from the tar sands in the tiny Native community of Fort Chipewyan. John O'Connor, an Irish doctor serving the Native community, began noticing an alarming spike in cancers among his patients, specifically cancers that are caused by petroleum exposure. When he raised concerns, Alberta's College of Physicians threatened to remove his license, giving him no choice but to leave his practice. Meanwhile, industry and government claimed production in the Oil Sands contributed zero pollution to the Athabasca River. Of course, it was industry and government funding the studies and all findings were kept secret.
Believing the natives of Fort Chipewyan deserved good science (as well as having great concern for the global impact of the Oil Sands Project), renowned ecologist David Schindler - who with his studies helped to ban high-phosphate laundry detergents in Canada in 1973 and led work to combat acid rain - led a team of scientists in secret to measure the pollution in the water surrounding the Oil Sands development.
In 2009 and 2010, they published the results in two separate papers in the prestigious Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences. Their research discovered higher-than-expected levels of toxins, including arsenic, lead and mercury, coming from industrial plants by both airborne and waterborne pathways. They also found a substantial, slow-moving oil spill repeated annually and suggested that the government was turning a blind eye to the failings of industry-funded pollution monitoring.
With data in hand, Fort Chipewyan's Dene Elder Francois Paulette travels to find allies around the world. With camera in tow, we watch as Paulette hits the Copenhagen Climate Conference, then to Norway's Statoil headquarters and to the United States sharing Schindler's findings. It's in New York where Paulette finds his most influential ally - James Cameron, director of the environmental blockbuster "Avatar."
Once Cameron takes notice, so does the world, and by the end, Schindler's discovery and Cameron's visit to the tar sands alarm the media and put Canada's environmental policy in the hot seat. Schindler's research and the determination of Fort Chipewyan residents to stop the unnecessary cancer deaths of its neighbors eventually lead to change. Separate reports by Canada's auditor general, the Royal Society of Canada and a panel of experts appointed by then Environment Minister Jim Prentice revealed a decade of incompetent pollution monitoring, paid for by industry, in Alberta's Oil Sands, and both the federal and Alberta governments announced steps to improve their pollution monitoring.
Redemption? Sure. But "Tipping Point" leaves you queasy about the future of humanity and with an intense sense of urgency to figure out alternative energy solutions.
On one hand, you feel bad for Canada - blessed and cursed with the world's third biggest oil deposit, smaller only than deposits in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The Oil Sands will contribute a projected $1.7 trillion to Canada's GDP over the next 25 years. By 2020, the Oil Sands will represent 3 percent of the Canadian economy. On the other hand, you hate Canada for putting economy ahead of the environment because, after all, without the environment sustaining life, there would be no economy, business, employment, etc.
And there's always that horrible looming fact that the U.S. is Canada's biggest buyer.
Like the scope of the tar-sand project itself, "Tipping Point" reveals the gargantuan problems a petroleum-based society faces (and the gargantuan solutions needed). Although small-scale changes, such as composting and recycling and driving less, are important to the fight, changes in industry and government policy are needed to win the war. Experts in the film make it clear: If humanity wants to survive, we have to change the way we're fueling our lives. So here's our choice: Do we survive, give up some of the luxuries petroleum delivers and endure the inevitable hardships of change? (I write "some" because my alternative-fuel future still affords me hot showers.) Or, do we burn, baby, burn oil until we destroy the planet and, thus, ourselves? Unlike the murky waters of the Oil Sands project, our choice is clear.
Freelance writer Cassie Pence is passionate about living a more sustainable lifestyle, She owns Organic Housekeepers, a green cleaning company, and is actively involved in the Eagle-Vail Community Garden, the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability and Slow Food Vail Valley. Contact her at cassie@organic