Through either experience or observation I have come to distrust the fossil fuel industry. It’s not that I think the people who work in fossil fuels are bad, but the track record of environmental catastrophes and damage to communities is troubling. My favourite documentary series to date is Gasland and Gasland Part 2 by filmmaker Josh Fox. His expertly produced film, putting a human face on the mismanagement of large fossil fuel companies and impotence of government to regulate them fairly well summarizes my concern about this industry.
The knee jerk dislike of so-called “big oil” is something that bothers me about myself because it feels like it is motivated more by emotion than hard fact. One of the things that concerned me about moving to the Northwest Territories was the focus on natural resource extraction here and in northern Alberta. I even casually checked to see if Fort McMurray was downriver from Fort Smith to see if the carcinogens that are produced there might appear in my adopted town’s drinking supply. I comforted myself, but I had misread the map. The water from there flows due north to where I am now.
An abandoned coal mine in northern Alberta suffered a breach and toxins/heavy metals are leaking from the site into the Athabasca River system. The Athabasca River flows into Lake Athabasca and from there north in the Slave River to the Great Slave Lake. The department of Municipal Affairs and Environment are monitoring the situation carefully. This could be one of those situations where ‘mercury levels four times above the regulated amount’ still would not harm a house cat, but it is still unnerving. I wonder if northerners and Canadians in general have disrespect for stewarding the environment because the vast, relatively pristine land surrounds us offers a false comfort.
The idea that it would be possible to poison or damage such a vast area is really difficult to imagine. Disasters such as the Deep Water Horizon causing the contamination of the Gulf of Mexico are basically unfathomable. The operations in western Canada are far less vast, but I am concerned sure dangers are involved we do not fully understand.
Reading northern newspapers it did not take me long to learn that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas was hot button issue. However it seems momentum has built behind those interested in pursuing fracking in the Sahtu region. It seems within the short future ConnocoPhillips will be drilling into the Sahtu’s shale layer, breaking it apart in pursuit of gas and in the end perhaps poisoning the water table as Josh Fox endlessly demonstrated in Gasland.
I do not know of many wealthy cities or countries built upon toxic land. The list of nations that have built a solid foundation upon a cesspool is brief. My fear is that jurisdictions are mortgaging their future for the short-term benefits. Substantial investment in local communities is attractive, but the extraction industry is not sustainable and it will vanish in time. While I write I saw this article pop up. Toxins from the coal mine have reached the Athabasca River. The old coal mine is not the same as fracking or the tar sands, but it is a powerful reminder that decades after these operations are abandoned they can still profoundly affect the regions left behind.