Sunday, March 23, 2008

Poisoning the Sacred Headwaters

What have Tar Sands extraction and Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction to do with one another? They both involve contamination of ground and surface waters. Sometimes Tar Sands oil is deep underground and the way to extract the oil is to inject steam down the well, to heat and liquify it enough to bring it to the surface. But injecting water under heat and pressure also allows heavy metals and hydrocarbons to leach out of the surrounding rock and clay and they can contaminate groundwater as well as come to the surface with the oil. In CBM production huge amounts of pressurized water are pumped up from deep underground where it can contaminate ground and surface water. But more on this later..

225 kilometers downstream from the Tar Sands is an old Hudson's Bay Company post called Fort Chipewyan. Most of the population of Fort Chipewyan is made up of a combination of Cree, Dene and Metis people. Many of these people live off the land, catching fish, hunting moose and muskrat and picking berries. Lately their ability to hunt and fish has been compromised because the fish have aquired a taste, “like gasoline”. and the moose are reputed to contain high levels of arsenic.

A couple of years ago a doctor raised a big stink about the elevated death rates from rare forms of cancer that were turning up in the Fort Chipewyan population. Alberta Health and Wellness and Health Canada have since sluffed it off as statistical anomalies. They've even driven the doctor who raised the alarm out of the province. After all, this kind of publicity makes it harder to recruit much needed workers for the Tar Sands.

Methane is in big demand these days because conventional gas wells, the kind where they drill a hole and pressurized gas comes to the surface, are drying up. Oil extraction of the Alberta Tar Sands is putting a huge demand on natural gas because it is used to heat the sands and extract the oil. As a result there is a lot of pressure for oil companies to come up with more methane from unconventional sources such as Coal Bed Methane (CBM).

In the states such as Montana and Wyoming, and the provice of Alberta tens of thousands of CBM wells have been dug and many ranchers have had to have their water trucked in or have had to abandon their land because their well water became toxic. We're talking water that had so much methane in it that you could light it on fire.

It was oil companies like Halliburton that first developed the technique of “fracing”, (pronounced “fracking”) or fracturing coal beds to release the methane that was bound to the surface of the coal. In the fracing process a toxic brew of chemicals which may include diesel fuel, benzene, propylene glycol, napthalene, aromatics, etc.,are pressure injected along with explosives to break up and force millions of fissures throughout the coal bed.

The exact mixture of fluids is kept a proprietary secret by each oil company. This makes it difficult to trace where the chemicals come from when they turn up in someone's water supply. But the possibility that these fracing fluids could contaminate groundwater is often denied and minimized both by the oil companies and by compliant governments like Alberta's .

In 2001 Vice President Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, personally intervened to exempt CBM fracing from regulation under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Now why did he do that? You would think that he would know more about this subject than most people. The problem is that he is supposed to represent the people of the United States, not the oil companies.

What does that matter to us here on the BC coast? North east of here is a place they call the Sacred Headwaters, where the Skeena, the Nass, and the Stikine Rivers have their sources. But there happens to be a big coal bed deposit right underneath the Sacred Headwaters area. The company Royal Dutch Shell wants to start exporatory drilling there for methane. And the BC government has given the go-ahead along with generous subsidies for Dutch Shell to build a road into the disputed area.

The only thing that's been holding Shell up is a road blockade by elders of the Tahltan tribe. Indians! Why do they always block progress? They don't live in the Sacred Headwaters. They just go up there to hunt. So what if the bad water from the CBM wells poisons the caribou and the moose and makes their fish taste like gasoline. They can always buy their meat from Safeway.

With tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water being pumped out of each CBM well everyday and up to ten thousand wells that could be dug we are talking about a lot of bad water running into these watersheds.
Water runs downhill, and whether all those chemicals are pumped to the surface or contaminate the groundwater, they will eventually get into our food supply.

I don't know what those Indians in Fort Chipewyan are griping about. If they just stopped hunting and fishing, and started drinking bottled water, then they wouldn't die of cancer. Alberta Tar Sands needs our gas and the United States needs the Tar Sands oil and if we happen to live downstream then we should just get used to it. Let's thank Premier Campbell for so generously inviting the oil companies in to develop the Sacred Headwaters. Yes, please write Premier Campbell a letter or e-mail expressing your appreciation of his efforts.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Earth Hour

What is an hour? - A division of time, an hour is 1/24th of a day. It's something that has been created by humans - a representation of reality that has become useful to the way we live, although it has no reality outside of human consciousness.

Imagine 8:00 in the evening of March 29 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on the international dateline. As this hour begins it's progress around our globe it first touches the Fiji Islands, where at 8:00 PM the people of Suva, Fiji's capital turn off their lights and turn down their electricity for one hour. Then it reaches New Zealand where the people of Christchurch follow suit. When this hour touches down in Australia it will have been a year since the city of Sydney first celebrated Earth Hour.

One year ago 2 million people in Sydney celebrated Earth Hour, when they turned their lights off for one hour. In just one hour they managed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 25 thousand tons from what it would have been otherwise. Why did they do this? Maybe it was because Australia is one of the places in the world most affected by global warming, due to the increasingly severe drought occurring there.

It has been known for more than a hundred years that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and that increasing amounts of it in the atmosphere would lead to an increased mean global temperature. For the last two hundred years our society has been producing more and more carbon dioxide as a result of our exponential increase in fossil fuel consumption. But it's only in the last twenty years that scientists have begun to see evidence of an accelerated rise in the Earth's mean temperature.

Global warming has become history's greatest threat to humankind. But we have brought this on by our ever increasing consumption of fossil fuels. At first the thought that we are all responsible for accelerated climate change is difficult to swallow. Indeed, many of us have not been able to accept the truth of this and so have wasted themselves in pettiness and denial.

Others may recognize the problem of climate change, but feel powerless to do anything about it. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. If we can make a dent in global greenhouse emissions in one hour then we can know in our hearts that each and everyone's efforts count for something.

Now Earth Hour reaches other Australian cities: Melbourne, and Perth. And they turn off their lights and turn down their electricity. Earth hour comes to Manila in the Philippines, then to Tel Aviv, Israel, then to Copenhagen, Denmark. It crosses the Atlantic Ocean and reaches the Canadian City of Toronto. The lights of Canada's greatest city darken for one hour.

Finally Earth Hour reaches Prince Rupert. We become part of a massive human wave beginning in Fiji and lasting 24 hours. Everyone who participates becomes a part of something bigger. Everyone of us can make a difference in how much energy the world consumes in just one hour.

Everyday 8:00 PM comes and goes – but the hours change, the days change, and the seasons change. The same hour goes around the Earth again and again but the events of this hour and this day will resonate long afterwards.

Become part of this human wave to stop runaway global warming on Earth Hour and turn off your lights and reduce your electricity for one hour from 8:00 to 9:00 PM on March 29.

Please come downtown and join in the official festivities as parts of Third ave. will be blocked off for unplugged music and fun times from 7:30 - 9:30 PM.

It's about responsibility isn't it? What we create interacts with the Earth we live on. If our creations are mucking things up then eventually we need to do something about it 24/7. But in the mean time, let's start with Earth Hour.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

New Sins on the Block

The Roman Catholic Church has now recognized polluting, genetic engineering, drug abuse, abortion, pedophilia, and the widening gap between rich and poor as mortal sins. These are add-ons to the ever-popular "seven deadly sins": pride, envy, lust, anger, greed, sloth, and gluttony.

Mortal sins are sins of grave matter where the sinner is fully aware that the act is wrong but does it anyways. The act of committing a mortal sin cuts off the sinner from God's grace - if left unreconciled, mortal sins result in eternal punishment in hell.

I can't help feeling deeply dissatisfied with the idea of sin. One the one hand, it's fun to say: "Don't do that. It's bad. You better say you're sorry." On the other hand, it focuses too much on the negative. Sometimes, when you tell people: "Don't do that. It's bad." it makes it more attractive and they want to do it more. I'd rather that people get excited about what they can do to make this world a better place than to fret about what they shouldn't do.

Even Jesus pointed out, more than once, that focusing on people's sins leads to hypocrisy. As the story goes, it becomes hypocritical to single out individual sinners because everybody is a sinner.

Concentration on eternal punishment, and confessing your sin and getting absolution from a priest are distractions from actually doing the right thing.

Many protestants teach that, due to original sin, humanity blew it, and there is nothing that we can do on our own that will reconcile ourselves with God. But all is not lost because if we become receptive to God's will we can open ourselves to God's saving grace.

Mohammedans have an official list of seventy sins, among which are slandering a chaste woman, not praying, and charging interest.

Some Hindus believe that you can nullify the effects of sin if you chant the name of certain Hindu gods enough times. These gods are obviously starved for attention.

The whole idea of "sin" appears to engender an institutional world of lists and classifications: of the severity of the sin; of God's escalating punishments; and of our increasingly elaborate means of avoiding them. What a colossal waste of time and effort

If you take the problem of pollution and the gap between rich and poor - there is plenty that we can do to turn the situation around. Telling people that they are "sinners" just gets people's backs up. Confessing one's sins is indulgent and ineffective.

Stop worrying about how mortal a sin it is you've committed and commit yourself to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and helping to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty!


When I see a "new" list of sins it makes me question the credibility of the concept. If you had to make a new list, that means that the old list was incomplete. Did these new sins suddenly come into existence? Because if people didn't know they were sinning, then they weren't really sinning were they? Only now it's supposed to be a sin because some Official Church Guy says it is. Give me a break!

Polluting the environment and enriching yourself at the expense of impoverishing others is wrong. But calling it a sin is lame and ineffective. It's a poor and roundabout way to motivate good behavior.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Huckabee's Second Favorite Book

About a month ago, when someone asked the Republican Presidential candidates what book they would bring to the White House if they could only bring one, Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, spoke in glowing terms of the book How Should We Then Live,by Francis Shaeffer. Huckabee, the most popular Presidential candidate among evangelicals, has won the Republican Primaries in some of the southern states, but overall he's a distant second to front runner John McCain.

You can certainly tell a lot about a person by the books he recommends and How We Should Then Live is no exception. When I heard that Huckabee was praising it my ears perked up because I've got that book and I've even read it. The author, Francis Shaeffer is considered by many to be one of the leading intellectual lights of the religious right. How Should We Then Live was conceived in 1974 and published in 1976 along with a film version. I picked up the book for 50 cents at a garage sale about five years ago. The DVD sells for $60 but it can be rented out.

The book is a brief but comprehensive survey of art, theology, and philosophy from the time of the Roman Empire to the 1970's. The subtitle of the book is a good indicator of what it contains: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. According to Shaeffer, who is a Calvinist, the pinnacle of Western civilization was the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century. Why? Because "...they (the reformers) took seriously the Bible's own claim for itself - that it is the only final authority."

Shaeffer's thesis is that Western Civilization has been declining ever since because of the corrupting influence of humanism. By "humanism" Shaeffer means the doctrine that "human reason alone can think out the answers to the great questions which confront mankind." "At its core", he says, "the Reformation was the removing of the humanistic distortions which had entered the church."

What bugs Shaeffer, Huckabee, and all the other Fundamentalists about humanism? Shaeffer does a good job of summing it up: "unless there is an absolute, these things are lost to us: morals, values, the meaning of existence, and a basis for man." "If there is no absolute beyond man's ideas then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict - we are merely left with conflicting opinions."

While I admire Shaeffer's clarity I take issue with his conclusions. If there is absolute truth, how do we know it's absolute, and how do we know that his interpretation or anyone else's is the right one? Just look at all the numerous sects of Christianity, all based on different interpretations of the Bible.

I believe that knowledge is provisional. We can approach the truth using scientific method, but we can never know if something is absolutely true. We need to listen to conflicting opinions because there is always the chance that we are wrong. Believing in absolute truth is psychologically satisfying for some people, but it is very dangerous for political systems. Fundamentalists like George W. Bush, believe that they are following God's plan and therefore they ignore criticism and bypass legal checks and balances in order to get their way.

If I know the "absolute truth" then those who disagree with me are dangerous heretics who should be put down. It becomes OK to torture people if I think that they are terrorists and they might have information about terrorist plans that they don't want to tell me willingly. If I'm privy to the "absolute truth" then how can I make a mistake? Nor do I ever need to be corrected or to learn anything new.

The fact that George W. Bush's most loyal supporters were evangelicals is pretty strong evidence that they have no monopoly on truth or morality. And the fact that evangelicals support Huckabee show that they haven't learned much from experience.