So, what can we do about it?
Says Canadian wildlife officials.
Researchers at the University of Alberta have “concluded that if (tar sand) development trends continue, within 30 years the caribou herd on the east side of the Athabasca River will be no more.” Rather than protecting the caribou habitat, however, government officials have resorted to culling the indigenous gray wolf packs. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF):
“As the Obama administration decides whether to give the go-ahead to the 1,700-mile Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, wildlife biologists have sounded a new alarm: expanding oil and gas production is contributing to the decline of caribou herds in Alberta.
Incredibly, Canada’s proposed solution to habitat destruction from tar sands development is to destroy the wolves that prey on caribou, instead of protecting their habitat.
Two particularly repugnant methods of destroying wolves – shooting wolves from helicopters and poisoning wolves with baits laced with strychnine – would be carried out in response to the caribou declines.
Strychnine is a deadly poison known for an excruciating death that progresses painfully from muscle spasms to convulsions to suffocation, over a period of hours. Wildlife officials will place strychnine baits on the ground or spread them from aircraft in areas they know wolves inhabit. In addition to wolves, non-target animals like raptors, wolverines and cougars will be at risk from eating the poisoned baits or scavenging on the deadly carcasses of poisoned wildlife”.
Canadian wildlife officials have been under pressure from the oil and gas industry for quite some time to use the culling of wolves as a way to offset the caribou loses caused by tar sand development. Only recently has this position been officially endorsed by the Canadian government. The NWF stated earlier this month:
“Late last week, internal documents went public showing Canada is fretting over its sullied reputation for unfettered fossil fuel development, while resorting to poisoning wolves rather than fixing the problem.”
As Paul Paquet pointed out in The Guardian last September:
“Egged on by a rapacious oil industry, the federal government has chosen to scapegoat wolves for the decline of boreal caribou in a morally and scientifically bankrupt attempt to protect Canada's industrial sacred cow: the tar sands. Yet, the ultimate reason why the caribou are on the way out is because multiple human disturbances – most pressingly, the tar sands development – have altered their habitat into a landscape that can no longer provide the food, cover and security they need.”
This environmental nightmare for Canada may soon become a nightmare for the United States if the Keystone XL Pipeline project is allowed to proceed. This 1,700 mile long pipeline will bring the heavy oil from the Alberta tar sand fields across the American plain states to U.S. refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Unlike light crude oil pumped from the Texas oil fields, the Keystone XL Pipeline would carry tar sands sludge and bitumen. According to the NWF, “Bitumen (is) a substance more corrosive than crude oil that is thinned with other petroleum condensates and pumped at high pressure and at a temperature of more than 150 degrees through the pipeline.”
An accident waiting to happen?
The Canadian tar sand development, as well as the U.S.-Canadian Keystone XL Pipeline project, has become a flashpoint in the debate between environmentalists and the energy industry. In Canada, it appears that the energy companies are winning this debate, with the support of political leadership. In the U.S., the Obama administration has stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline development (at least temporarily). However, House Majority Leader John Boehner has made it clear that the pipeline project has top priority in Congress this year.
Brad Carson, the Director of the National Energy Policy Institute, a DC energy industry lobbying group, summed up the short term argument for the tar sands development (and the pipeline project) in an interview with Living on Earth last year:
"The larger debate [...] is whether we need to wean ourselves off of oil in the near term, period. And that is a debate worth having. But so long as we’re an oil addicted economy, the tar sands [and the pipeline] I think can play an important role in the world oil market."