Here is the full transcript of photographer Garth Lenz’s TEDx Talk: The True Cost of Oil at TEDxVictoria conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The true cost of oil by Garth Lenz at TEDxVictoria
Hi everyone. The world’s largest and most devastating environmental and industrial project is situated in the heart of the largest and most intact forest in the world: Canada’s boreal forest. It stretches right across Northern Canada, in Labrador, it’s home to the largest remaining wild caribou herd in the world: the George River caribou herd, numbering approximately 400,000 animals. Unfortunately, when I was there, I couldn’t find one of them, but you have the antlers as proof.
All across the boreal, we’re blessed with this incredible abundance of wetlands. Wetlands globally are one of the most endangered ecosystems. They’re absolutely critical ecosystems, they clean air, they clean water, they sequester large amounts of greenhouse gases, and they’re home to a huge diversity of species. In the boreal, they are also the home where almost 50% of the 800 bird species found in North America migrate north to breed and raise their young.
In Ontario, the boreal marches down south to the north shore of Lake Superior. And these incredibly beautiful boreal forests were the inspiration for some of the most famous art in Canadian history, the Group of Seven were very inspired by this landscape. And so the boreal is not just a really key part of our natural heritage, but also an important part of our cultural heritage.
In Manitoba, this is an image from the east side of Lake Winnipeg, and this is the home of the newly designated UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. In Saskatchewan, as across all of the boreal, home to some of our most famous rivers, an incredible network of rivers and lakes that every school-age child learns about, the Peace, the Athabasca, the Churchill here, the Mackenzie, and these networks were the historical routes for the voyageur and the coureur de bois, the first non-aboriginal explorers of Northern Canada that, taking from the First Nations people, used canoes and paddled to explore for a trade route, a Northwest Passage for the fur trade.
In the North, the boreal is bordered by the tundra, and just below that, in Yukon, we have this incredible valley, the Tombstone Valley. And the Tombstone Valley is home to the Porcupine caribou herd. Now you’ve probably heard about the Porcupine caribou herd in the context of its breeding ground in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Well, the wintering ground is also critical and it also is not protected, and is potentially — could be potentially, exploited for gas and mineral rights.
The western border of the boreal in British Columbia is marked by the Coast Mountains, and on the other side of those mountains is the greatest remaining temperate rainforest in the world, the Great Bear Rainforest, and we’ll discuss that in a few minutes in a bit more detail.
All across the boreal, it’s home for a huge incredible range of indigenous peoples, and a rich and varied culture. And I think that one of the reasons why so many of these groups have retained a link to the past, know their native languages, the songs, the dances, the traditions, I think part of that reason is because of the remoteness, the spans and the wilderness of this almost 95% intact ecosystem. And I think particularly now, as we see ourselves in a time of environmental crisis, we can learn so much from these people who have lived so sustainably in this ecosystem for over 10,000 years.
In the heart of this ecosystem is the very antithesis of all of these values that we’ve been talking about, and I think these are some of the core values that make us proud to be Canadians. This is the Alberta tar sands, the largest oil reserves on the planet outside of Saudi Arabia. Trapped underneath the boreal forest and wetlands of northern Alberta are these vast reserves of this sticky, tar-like bitumen. And the mining and the exploitation of that is creating devastation on a scale that the planet has never seen before.
I want to try to convey some sort of a sense of the size of this. If you look at that truck there, it is the largest truck of its kind on the planet. It is a 400-ton-capacity dump truck and its dimensions are 45 feet long by 35 feet wide and 25 feet high. If I stand beside that truck, my head comes to around the bottom of the yellow part of that hubcap. Within the dimensions of that truck, you could build a 3,000-square-foot two-story home quite easily. I did the math. So instead of thinking of that as a truck, think of that as a 3,000-square-foot home. That’s not a bad size home. And line those trucks/homes back and forth across there from the bottom all the way to the top. And then think of how large that very small section of one mine is.
Now, you can apply that same kind of thinking here as well. Now, here you see — of course, as you go further on, these trucks become like a pixel. Again, imagine those all back and forth there. How large is that one portion of a mine? That would be a huge, vast metropolitan area, probably much larger than the city of Victoria. And this is just one of a number of mines, 10 mines so far right now. This is one section of one mining complex, and there are about another 40 or 50 in the approval process. No tar sands mine has actually ever been denied approval, so it is essentially a rubber stamp.
The other method of extraction is what’s called the in situ. And here, massive amounts of water are superheated and pumped through the ground, through these vast networks of pipelines, seismic lines, drill pads, compressor stations. And even though this looks maybe not quite as repugnant as the mines, it’s even more damaging in some ways. It impacts and fragments a larger part of the wilderness, where there is 90% reduction of key species, like woodland caribou and grizzly bears, and it consumes even more energy, more water, and produces at least as much greenhouse gas. So these in-situ developments are at least as ecologically damaging as the mines.
The oil produced from either method produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other oil. This is one of the reasons why it’s called the world’s dirtiest oil. It’s also one of the reasons why it is the largest and fastest-growing single source of carbon in Canada, and it is also a reason why Canada is now number three in terms of producing carbon per person.
The tailings ponds are the largest toxic impoundments on the planet. Oil sands — or rather, I should say tar sands — oil sands is a PR-created term so that the oil companies wouldn’t be trying to promote something that sounds like a sticky tar-like substance that’s the world’s dirtiest oil. So they decided to call it oil sands. The tar sands consume more water than any other oil process, three to five barrels of water are taken, polluted and then returned into tailings ponds, the largest toxic impoundments on the planet.