There’s been much focus – particularly since Barack Obama’s visit to Canada – about the Alberta Tar Sands. The project does tend to cast a large shadow over Western Canada in particular – and to every Canadian concerned about the environmental toll.

The Tar Sands is the world’s largest energy project, largest construction project and largest capital project.

Apparently, to make one barrel of bitumen (the goo that is processed into synthetic crude), it takes an average of three barrels of fresh water, two tons of sand, and uses up to a third of the amount of energy the barrel will produce in the upgrading. This barrel then leaves behind 187 pounds of CO2, three times as much as a traditional barrel of oil. And all that is before it has been burned. What’s more, we’re hearing about worldwide water shortages and yet the tar sands withdrew 119.5 billion gallons in 2008 alone.

But for the most part, the project plugs along – seemingly unstoppable.

Occasionally, we’re jarred from complacency by headlines such as those we saw late last April when roughly 500 ducks, who had the misfortune to land in a tar sands tailings pond, died. For a brief time, it seemed the world stood still, horrified by the toxicity of these ponds. Indeed, the federal and provincial governments quickly vowed to take action against Canada Syncrude Ltd., the company that admitted responsibility for the ducks’ demise.

But then, life resumed its normal routine and the ducks were mostly forgotten.

Except by Jeh Custer. Custer is an energy campaigner with Sierra Club Canada, who refuses to let the government and Syncrude duck its responsibility. Together with his lawyer Barry Robinson from Ecojustice, in January 2009, Custer launched a private prosecution against Syncrude under the Federal Migratory Birds Convention Act.

There was plenty of David and Goliath comparisons, though it’s interesting to note that Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s premiere, reportedly referred to the tar sands as David fighting against a “green Goliath” of environmental groups.

But going up against the government and Syncrude seems to have paid off. In a rare example of environmentalism trumping corporate interests, in early February, both the federal government and the government of Alberta laid charges against Syncrude based on the same arguments as Custer.

While this is cause for celebration, the tar sands continue to wreak their havoc, with no signs of letting up. Sure Syncrude might be forced to clean up its act…or at least its tailings ponds. But the leviathan that is the Tar Sands will leave a toxic legacy for many, many decades to come.

Leslie Garrett is a national award-winning journalist, author and editor, based near Toronto, Canada. She is the author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World and she has also written a dozen children’s books, including a biography of renowned environmentalist David Suzuki and “EarthSmart”, a book for young children on protecting the environment.

Visit: http://www. virtuousconsumer. com/

Images courtesy of www. oilsandswatch. org

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