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Home » Garth Lenz: The True Cost of Oil at TEDxVictoria (Full Transcript)

Garth Lenz: The True Cost of Oil at TEDxVictoria (Full Transcript)

Garth Lenz

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.

SemCrude, just one of the licensees, in just one of their tailings ponds, dumps 250,000 tons of this toxic gunk every single day. That’s creating the largest toxic impoundments in the history of the planet. So far, this is enough toxin to cover the face of Lake Erie a foot deep. And the tailings ponds range in size up to 9,000 acres. That’s two-thirds the size of the entire island of Manhattan. That’s like from Wall Street at the southern edge of Manhattan up to maybe 120th Street. So this is one of the larger tailings ponds. This might be, what? I don’t know, half the size of Manhattan. And you can see in the context, it’s just a relatively small section of one of 10 mining complexes and another 40 to 50 on stream to be approved soon.

And of course, these tailings ponds — well, you can’t see many ponds from outer space and you can see these, so maybe we should stop calling them ponds — these massive toxic wastelands are built unlined and on the banks of the Athabasca River. And the Athabasca River drains downstream to a range of aboriginal communities. In Fort Chipewyan, the 800 people there, are finding toxins in the food chain, this has been scientifically proven. The tar sands toxins are in the food chain, and this is causing cancer rates up to 10 times what they are in the rest of Canada.

In spite of that, people have to live, have to eat this food in order to survive. The incredibly high price of flying food into these remote Northern aboriginal communities and the high rate of unemployment makes this an absolute necessity for survival. And not that many years ago, I was lent a boat by a First Nations man, and he said, “When you go out on the river, do not under any circumstances eat the fish. It’s carcinogenic.” And yet, on the front porch of that man’s cabin, I saw four fish. He had to feed his family to survive. And as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing.

The boreal forest is also perhaps our best defense against global warming and climate change. The boreal forest sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. And this is absolutely key. So what we’re doing is, we’re taking the most concentrated greenhouse gas sink — twice as much greenhouse gases are sequestered in the boreal per acre than the tropical rainforests. And what we’re doing is we’re destroying this carbon sink, turning it into a carbon bomb. And we’re replacing that with the largest industrial project in the history of the world, which is producing the most high-carbon greenhouse-gas emitting oil in the world. And we’re doing this on the second largest oil reserves on the planet.

This is one of the reasons why Canada, originally a climate change hero — we were one of the first signatories of the Kyoto Accord. Now we’re the country that has full-time lobbyists in the European Union and Washington DC, threatening trade wars when these countries talk about wanting to bring in positive legislation to limit the import of high-carbon fuels, of greenhouse gas emissions, anything like this, at international conferences, whether they’re in Copenhagen or Cancun, international conferences on climate change, we’re the country that gets the dinosaur award every single day, as being the biggest obstacle to progress on this issue.

Just 70 miles downstream is the world’s largest freshwater delta, the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the only one at the juncture of all four migratory flyways. This is a globally significant wetland, perhaps the greatest on the planet. Incredible habitat for half the bird species you find in North America, migrating here. And also the last refuge for the largest herd of wild bison, and also, of course, critical habitat for another whole range of other species. But it too is being threatened by the massive amount of water being drawn from the Athabasca, which feeds these wetlands, and also the incredible toxic burden of the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet, which are leaching in to the food chain for all the species downstream.

So as bad as all that is, things are going to get much worse — much, much worse. This is the infrastructure as we see it about now. This is what’s planned for 2015. And you can see here the Keystone Pipeline, which would take tar sands raw down to the Gulf Coast, punching a pipeline through the agricultural heart of North America, of the United States, and securing the contract with the dirtiest fuel in the world by consumption of the United States, and promoting a huge disincentive to a sustainable clean-energy future for America.

Here you see the route down the Mackenzie valley. This would put a pipeline to take natural gas from the Beaufort Sea through the heart of the third largest watershed basin in the world, and the only one which is 95% intact. And building a pipeline with an industrial highway would change forever this incredible wilderness, which is a true rarity on the planet today.

So the Great Bear Rainforest is just over the hill there, within a few miles, we go from these dry boreal forests of 100-year-old trees, maybe 10 inches across, and soon, we’re in the coastal temperate rainforest, rain-drenched, 1,000-year-old trees, 20 feet across, a completely different ecosystem. And the Great Bear Rainforest is generally considered to be the largest coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem in the world. Some of the greatest densities of some of the most iconic and threatened species on the planet. And yet there’s a proposal, of course, to build a pipeline to take huge tankers, 10 times the size of the Exxon Valdez, through some of the most difficult-to-navigate waters in the world, where only just a few years ago, a BC ferry ran aground. When one of these tar sands tankers, carrying the dirtiest oil, 10 times as much as the Exxon Valdez, eventually hits a rock and goes down, we’re going to have one of the worst ecological disasters this planet has ever seen.

And here we have the plan out to 2030. What they’re proposing is an almost four-times increase in production, and that would industrialize an area the size of Florida. In doing so, we’ll be removing a large part of our greatest carbon sink and replacing it with the most high greenhouse-gas emission oil in the future. The world does not need any more tar mines. The world does not need any more pipelines to wed our addiction to fossil fuels. And the world certainly does not need the largest toxic impoundments to grow and multiply and further threaten the downstream communities. And let’s face it, we all live downstream in an era of global warming and climate change.

What we need, is we all need to act to ensure that Canada respects the massive amounts of freshwater that we hold in this country. We need to ensure that these wetlands and forests that are our best and greatest and most critical defense against global warming are protected, and we are not releasing that carbon bomb into the atmosphere. And we need to all gather together and say no to the tar sands. And we can do that. There is a huge network all over the world, fighting to stop this project.

And I quite simply think that this is not something that should be decided just in Canada. Everyone in this room, everyone across Canada, everyone listening to this presentation has a role to play and, I think, a responsibility. Because what we do here is going to change our history, it’s going to color our possibility to survive, and for our children to survive and have a rich future.

We have an incredible gift in the boreal, an incredible opportunity to preserve our best defense against global warming, but we could let that slip away. The tar sands could threaten not just a large section of the boreal. It compromises the life and the health of some of our most underprivileged and vulnerable people, the aboriginal communities that have so much to teach us. It could destroy the Athabasca Delta, the largest and possibly greatest freshwater delta in the planet. It could destroy the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest temperate rainforest in the world. And it could have huge impacts on the future of the agricultural heartland of North America.

I hope that you will all, if you’ve been moved by this presentation, join with the growing international community to get Canada to step up to its responsibilities, to convince Canada to go back — going back to be a climate change champion instead of a climate change villain, and to say no to the tar sands, and yes to a clean energy future for all. Thank you so much.

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