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Tar sands: Downplaying a mistake

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Today I hit Calgary in my journey to the tar sands, the oil headquarters of Alberta. All the oil giants rest in this part of Albertan land -- Esso, Shell, Petro Canada -- who all have their hands in the tar sands. Here I spoke with the united face of the oil companies, CAPP (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers). I tried to confront them in oil pains to the planet. But there answer was more of the same, that the tar sands is more or less 'sustainable.' But is this true?

New reports on the tar sands state that the greenhouse gas intensity is narrowing to conventional oil, that it is only 10 per cent more. While CAPP tells me that the tar sands is less than one per cent of total global emissions. But isn't this just downplaying the world's largest capital and energy project?

The Wall Street Journal points out that the tar sands isn't getting cleaner but conventional oil is getting dirtier as its harder to recover. There is also the inconvenient truth that the tar sands emits three times more GHG than conventional oil, while the project alone emits the same as entire countries like Switzerland, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In a time of climate change where we are all supposed to be lowering our carbon footprint, how does expanding the oil sands (and that is Harper's plan) make any logical sense?

It's like we live in a world where rational thought and science, these things that have socially evolved like none other, take a back seat for a bad science-fiction novel come true. Where extinct millennia old fossils have come up from the ground into the air to destroy us in a self-made apocalypse created by greed, envy and sloth.

To discuss philosophy and intellectual thought on the tar sands, in the afternoon I visited with David Keith, an academic climate warrior at the University of Calgary. What he had to tell me scared me.

After 20 years of battling climate change and a professor who works as one of the IPCC scientists, he is pessimistic about the future. All he has seen and still sees is talk and what we need is regulations in place. He also stated that coal was the big issue for climate change, not the tar sands. As coal produces 40 per cent of the world's GHG.

This may be true, but again this kind of rhetoric downplays the tar sands. Yes, in terms of global climate change, there are bigger fish to fry like coal. However, the tar sands single handedly blocks Canada fulfilling the next climate agreement in Copenhagen. By 2020, the tar sands will emit 16 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions -- double that by 2050. Yet, science tells us (and the Copenhagen mandate) is that 80 per cent emissions must be cut by 2050. You do the math.

And let's not forget that oil is a big player in climate change. Oil has been pivotal in constructing our globalized, industrialized world where we know face a 'thermagedon.' And if all unconventional oil reserves in North America are exploited, they will alone raise the earth temperature to two degrees, the threshold above which we risk a new global extinction.

So let's face it, the tar sands is no small matter neither in size nor in climatic impact. Downplaying and business as usual with dirtier fossil fuels in the 21st century is no way to battle climate change. As a youth, this is my future being decided upon, and I for one want survival not suicide.

Emily Hunter's Journey to the Tar Sands airs this fall on MTV News Canada.

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