Tar sands oil debate hits USM

Posted on February 03, 2014 in News
By dakotawing

Randy Hazelton | The Free Press
Randy Hazelton | The Free Press
Randy Hazelton | The Free Press
Randy Hazelton | The Free Press

The debate over tar sands landed on USM’s doorstep last Friday as hundreds gathered in the Hannaford Lecture Hall to discuss the transportation of the controversial resource.

The event was sponsored by 350 Maine in partnership with the Natural Resource Council of Maine. 350 Maine is a grassroots organization dedicated to solving the crisis of climate change. Speakers at the event were Garth Lenz, a photojournalist for National Geographic who has received international recognition based on his photographs of threatened environments and the impacts of industry, Eriel Deranger, activist and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Dylan Voorhees, Clean Energy Project Director of the NRCM.

One topic of conversation at the event was a pipeline leading from Montreal to South Portland that feeds crude oil north from South Portland for 60 years. Now oil companies want to reverse the direction and replace the crude oil with tar sands. Tar sands oil is thicker than crude oil and contains many more toxic chemicals, including large amounts of carbon. When asked why the oil companies would choose to switch to tar sands, Voorhees said “Why? Because Canada has it.”
Lenz claimed that he was not there to pick a side as much as “to share information so people can have an informed discussion about it.” He said that tar sands are one of the most carbon intensive energy forms. It is also the third largest proven oil reserve in the world. The mining of tar sands is occurring in Alberta, Canada, where they receive about 1.8 million barrels of tar sands oil every day. According to Lenz, oil companies plan to expand the mining in Alberta, and this number will increase to five to six million barrels a day. On the subject of the impact tar sands will have on North America’s fresh water, Lenz said, “Clean water will always be worth more than dirty oil.”

Deranger spoke of the effect of tar sands on the Athabasca Chipewyan tribe and many others in Alberta. She described chemicals leaking into their water and polluting the meat of their food sources, which has led to a dramatic rise in the people’s cancer rates. Her actions to stop the harm being done to these people had an especially profound impact on sophomore nursing major and Native American student Sam Nicholas. “What she’s doing is very inspiring, being a woman and a mother.”
The 350 in “350 Maine” stands for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere measured in parts per million that it takes to be associated with climate change. Currently the earth’s atmosphere is at 400 parts carbon per million, which is causing the climate to change.

The Portland Montreal Pipeline, in a Jan. 16, 2013 press release on protests over use of the pipeline, wrote: “Our commitment to public safety and the environment continues to be recognized by leading industry organizations in the U.S and Canada.” They recognized that there would be debate over the use of the pipeline and that they would “welcome opportunities for open discussion that are fact based and transparent.” They said they would be doing this work with the pipeline with as much caution towards the environment as possible.

Many students were at the event in support of 350 Maine. First year economics major Alanna Larrivee and first year political science major Iris Sanoiovanni both had comments to make about tar sands. “The environment is of utmost importance. You only get one, and if that gets tarnished, we don’t have a backup,” said Larrivee. Sanoiovanni had been involved with the debate over tar sands since a meeting she attended last year. “It doesn’t bring about just environmental injustice, but social injustice as well. We, as a society, can’t stand for it,” said Sanoiovanni.

Not everyone except the PMPL is against the use of tar sands, however. Many people can also see the benefits of using them. “Tar sands may cost a lot of money, but it’s not going to be our money, it’s going to be the company that is moving the tar sands,” said first year undeclared Stephen Colby. When asked about the debate over damage to the environment that tar sands would cause, he said “The environmental damages are going to happen. I would rather Portland benefit than lose out on an opportunity like this, if it can be called an opportunity at all. If it can bring in a bunch of revenue for Portland, it would be a beneficial outcome. Tar sands is not a good thing, but I would rather it be in our benefit,” said Colby.

“Tar sands is no doubt a controversial subject with reasons for support on both sides. When asked why we do not turn to the use of alternative energy sources,” Voorhees said, “in a lot of these forms of energy, they require a lot more money up front,” meaning that even though renewable resources pay off in the long run, they cost a lot of money to research and enact now, whereas oil is cheaper now, and we have it now.