Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Nobody's Backyard: Pat Ford on the Tar Sands

What follows is a letter from Save Our Wild Salmon's executive director to coalition members and supporters, on the emerging implications for salmon of oil sands strip-mining in Canada's Boreal Forest.  Exxon recently issued a surprise plan to use the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and Idaho and Montana highways, to ship huge mining machinery to the oil sands. In effect, the Columbia and Snake Rivers are slated to be a conveyor belt for one of the world's largest intentional environmental disasters.

This is the kind of project that belongs in nobody's backyard...


Dear friends of Save Our Wild Salmon,

This fall Exxon intends to start using the Columbia and Snake Rivers as a transportation corridor to support development of the Canadian oil sands in northern Alberta.  The basics of oil sands development, Exxon’s plan, and the threats of both to salmon are outlined on our website.  I think this matter helps illuminate the changed context of conservation and citizenship in a time of climate disruption.

Save Our Wild Salmon’s mission is to restore abundant wild salmon to Northwest rivers and streams for use by people and ecosystems.  Most of those salmon and steelhead are endangered by extinction or trending that way, for the “old” reasons we are all familiar with:  habitat destruction of many kinds at all scales, often abetted and complicated by our salmon management responses.    

Salmon people are now looking for handles on a risk that overlays and amplifies the old ones:  the steady heating of our rivers and disruption of the water cycles that govern them caused by the collective greenhouse gas pollution of humankind.  It gives one pause.  Stopping and then reversing habitat destruction is hard enough, but at least we can have at it in the watersheds where we live or work or fish.  It is rather more daunting if coal development in China is now a greater threat to salmon than, say, public land livestock grazing in our own states.  How do we deal with that?

SOS’ response, like everyone’s in this new context, is experimental – but it has not been timid.  Since 2007, working with allies, we have helped move the Northwest toward a future with both wild salmon and clean energy.  We take Ben Franklin’s conviction in another context to heart:  these two pillars of a good future will either hang together, or hang separately.  We have not worked on coal plants in China, nor to phase out particular coal plants in the Northwest; but we have endorsed, helped document, and helped fund the steps to a Northwest energy future that is close to carbon-free in 30 years.  This is a necessary future for salmon, for people, and for the waters we share.

Full development of the Canadian oil sands will greatly increase the carbon pollution that, unless stopped, will by stages render Northwest waters uninhabitable for salmon.  The oil sands are not that far away.  Our fellow salmon defenders in British Columbia – First Nations, conservationists, fishermen, their communities – are fighting it, and we should join them in self-interest and solidarity.

Salmon defenders are also citizens.  Exxon is one of the largest assemblies of money, technical prowess and power on earth.  Focused on its dominating purpose – make money - it has worked quietly for at least two years to oil the skids for its plan.  Government agencies and elected officials, federal and state, have enabled Exxon’s secrecy and single focus in all-too-familiar ways:  inadvertence, tunnel vision, and capture by the monied and powerful.  Plus a factor that is not unique to government:  capture in the ruts of the past, which in times of challenge can become very deep pits.

A passionate wise young friend asked me a few days ago as I outlined Exxon’s plan, “When do we make our turn to the future?  When do we stop serving a past that we know can’t continue?”  She was in part addressing the Obama Administration, for which she had large hopes on energy and climate.  But she also addressed herself, and me, and you.  Developing the oil sands is for some a comfortable continuation of what has worked well for a century.  For most of us it is a growing but completely invisible source for the gas we pump into our cars.   But our children and children’s children – what is mining the oil sands to them?  Is it part of the change their eyes looking back to us from their future are asking us to make?  When do we start those changes?

I have met some of the Canadians fighting for salmon and their homes, thus against oil sands mining and pipelines.  They are tough patriotic people to whom we owe help.  Now we learn the confluence of massive strip-mining for oil in Canada and climate disruption also threatens salmon in the Columbia and Snake.  Salmon teach the lessons of connectedness, and so will global warming teach them, sternly, for decades to come. 

On behalf of our namesake, Save Our Wild Salmon will oppose Exxon’s plans for the Columbia and Snake, and join friends and fellows in opposing the oil sands.  Win or lose, I trust we will learn something for the many next cases to come when climate change pushes us outside our accustomed ranges of acting and reacting.  As it does the same to salmon, if we watch closely how they react I think we will learn lessons for ourselves.    


Good citizen website. Chronicles work by people who live along and use the Lochsa River who suddenly find this project bearing down on them.

Pembina Institute in Vancouver has a website on the tar sands and its effects along the British Columbia coast.

U.S. effects of the tar sands (though so far without mention of Exxon's proposal) are featured on a joint website of some national conservation groups.

A link for the Declaration against the oil sands and Gateway Pipeline by nine First Nations on the British Columbia coast.

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