Extreme killer superstorms, historic drought, vanishing sea ice, an increase in ocean acidity by 30 percent, the hottest decade on record and mega forest fires have increasingly become our new reality.
“That’s all happened when you raise the temperature of the earth one degree,” says author Bill McKibben, “[t]he temperature will go up four degrees, maybe five, unless we get off coal and gas and oil very quickly.” Additional temperature rises could compromise our safety and cause incalculable damage from a large number of billion-dollar disasters in coming years—if we don’t address our emissions, insist upon an appropriate climate policy and curtail the rogue fossil fuel industry.
How are we in the U.S. and Canada addressing these crises?
Not through the co-opted political system, but with heroic acts by the ordinary citizens of North America. People have been putting their bodies on the line and risking arrest in order to protect our future, to acknowledge climate change disasters and to protect access to basic necessities such as uncontaminated water, soil and food. We are seeing an exponentially growing number of nationwide rallies, protests and acts of civil disobedience just to protect these fundamental life support systems.
The threats are exacerbated by the looming death throes of an outdated and finite fossil fuel industry struggling to stay relevant in the 21st century, despite its current economic might. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the fossil fuel industry is struggling when their unprecedented profits make them the wealthiest of corporations in the history of mankind, even in this devastated global economy—but the times, they are-a-changing.
As we have evidently exhausted the easier-to-access “conventional” fuels, Big Oil is now resorting to “unconventional” sources, and the industry must rely on more and more extreme extraction measures to obtain fossil fuel resources. These extreme forms of extraction come with a dangerous cost, and often a high economic cost as well. In a New York Times article on the grim economics of the natural gas boom, even the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, stated, “We’re making no money. It’s all in the red.” Texas billionaire oilman T Boone Pickens said, “shut her down,” “quit drilling” and “we are stupid to drill these wells.”
But they won’t because the leases the companies have bought came, in most cases, with “use it or lose it” clauses that required them to start drilling, pay royalties or lose the leases.
Lost leases may be an economic concern to these mega-wealthy multinational corporations, but the loss of, and lethal threat to, our living systems that we depend upon for survival is of greater concern for the rest of us. These extreme extraction processes are the fossil fuel industry’s last-ditch efforts to stretch their global financial dominance as far into the 21st century as they possibly can. To access oil beyond the shallow wells of the last century—which are now mostly exhausted—one process the industry has turned to is deep-water drilling, including opening up the extremely sensitive areas in the Arctic region. We have already had a taste of the devastating repercussions of this practice from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Another extreme resource extraction method is a strip-mining process known as tar sands oil extraction, which destroys entire ecosystems where they lie. Tar sands oil entails a wildly energy-intensive extraction process, uses millions of cubic metres of water and the resulting material must be mixed with a poisonous cocktail of chemicals.
Tar sands exploitation leaves behind a dead zone. It also leaves behind the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet in enormous lakes that require firing off special cannons to keep flocks of waterfowl from landing on it (risking near-certain death).
Threatened by the planned massive expansion of Canada’s tar sands operation, which would be aided by the approval of either the Keystone XL or the Enbridge Energy pipelines, is the awe-inspiring magnificence of the Canadian boreal forest, which serves as our first defense against global warming as it sequesters more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem; and the Athabasca delta, the world’s largest freshwater delta. In the U.S., Utah has a proposed a 50-square-mile tar sands exploitation project of its own, which, according to Bloomberg, has just been approved “without first obtaining a pollution permit or monitoring ground water quality”.