Public Spotlight Shown on Tar Sands Oil Impacts

On Saturday an international coalition of environmental groups, including the Canada and US-based Forest Ethics, kicked off a global campaign to stop what might be the most environmentally destructive oil project in history.  The groups are calling on governments and large corporations to end their support for the Canadian Tar Sands project, which is devastating vast areas of forest in the province of Alberta in order to send a particularly dirty form of oil to the US market. 

At more than twenty events in the United States, and dozens more in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere throughout the world, volunteers planned creative protests to draw attention to governments and corporations involved in the tar sands.  In supermarket produce aisles from New York City to Seattle, activists unfurled banners calling on fruit producers Dole and Chiquita to stop using tar sands oil to fuel their trucks.  In Canada protests focused on the Canadian government’s support for tar sands development, and in Europe protests took place outside Canadian embassies and banks that are financing tar sands extraction.

At an event in Portland, Oregon activists walked into a Safeway wearing shirts that read “Chiquita: Now that’s a Rotten Banana.  Say No to Tar Sands Fueled Transportation.”  The group unfurled a banner behind the banana produce section, and acted out a skit criticizing Chiquita and Safeway for their use of tar sands oil.  The group then walked out of the store chanting “Hey Chiquita, what do we say?  Stop using tar sands oil today.”

According to Forest Ethics, the tar sands “are emerging as a 

focal point of discussion about the future of energy production and consumption” worldwide.  The tar sands are the fastest-growing center of oil production on the planet, and the tar sands project in Alberta has become the world’s largest source of industrial carbon emissions.  Unlike conventional crude oil, petroleum in the tar sands is tied up in a rock-like substance called bitumen, making extraction of the oil exceedingly expensive and energy-intensive. 

Largely due to the energy needed to extract and refine petroleum from the tar sands, the oil produced has a lifecycle carbon footprint up to three times greater than conventional oil.  The extraction process also involves clearing huge tracts of Canada’s old growth forests, threatening an area the size of Scotland with imminent deforestation.  Toxic sludge left over from extraction and refinement is stored in giant tailings ponds that prove to be death traps for migrating birds that land on them.  Toxins from ponds can also leak into local water supplies, posing a serious health hazard for indigenous nations and other nearby communities. 

Based on these dangers, groups like Forest Ethics and Greenpeace are calling on governments and corporations to avoid purchasing oil from refineries fed by the tar sands.  So far twelve major companies—including Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Walgreens—have pledged to reduce or eliminate tar sands fuel from their vehicle fleets.  The city of Bellingham, Washington has also established a policy to avoid using tar sands oil.  Now environmental organizations are looking to other companies to join the bandwagon.

Chiquita and Dole, both of which use large truck fleets for shipping bananas to the United States from plantations in Latin America—have not responded to attempts by Forest Ethics to start a dialogue about reducing their reliance on the tar sands.  This prompted many US organizers preparing for Saturday’s international day of action to plan their events with a focus on these two corporations.  Forest Ethics hopes pressure from customers and the public will persuade Dole and Chiquita to join other companies that are eliminating tar sands oil from their truck fleets.

This strategy has worked before.  Beginning in the 1980s and continuing on into the early twenty-first century, Forest Ethics used public pressure campaigns to build corporate and government support for protecting Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest from logging.  These efforts won legislation in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia that will protect tens of millions of acres from the timber industry. 

While this remains a landmark victory in the fight against irresponsible logging, the same forests are now threatened by pollution and deforestation from proposed tar sand oil pipelines.  In response the wheels of grassroots organizing and public pressure campaigns have begun turning again, as an international network emerges to safeguard one of North America’s greatest forests from the energy-hungry oil industry.  

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