Witnessing the Alberta Tar Sands Disaster with Joanna Macy
Posted: 11/21/2009
In May I traveled with Joanna Macy to Northern Alberta. I was performing a number of months prior at the Sophia Center in Oakland with Joanna when she asked me if I would join her on a journey to witness the nightmare that is the Alberta Tar Sands. You may not have heard of the tar sands but many people are now calling it the worst current environmental disaster on the planet. And in many ways the Alberta and Canadian government doesn’t want you to know about it. But the fact is that the United States is buying much of the oil that is generated from that region, to the tune of almost 1,000,000 barrels a day. So all of us are involved in consuming this dirty oil daily.

This region is the world’s largest oil deposit after Saudi Arabia and is the site of the world’s largest construction project. It covers an area the size of Florida, and continues to grow. Oil companies from around the world have licenses to extract the vast deposits of bitumen( tar mixed with sand, clay and heavy minerals). Bitumen is the raw material that is turned into crude oil through a process that involves the use of extremely toxic chemicals. The process also creates enormous amounts of greenhouse gas and makes Canada a huge contributor to global warming. It causes the emission of three times the amount of greenhouse gasses than conventional oil.
In order to access the bituman, the entire boreal forest is ripped from the land and steam and solvents are piped into the earth to melt the raw material into a liquid. The by-product of this process is the creation of giant tailing ponds of toxic liquid.

It is difficult for me to describe what it was like to visit the land there. We traveled to Fort Mcmurray(now nicknamed Fort McMoney) and rented a small 5 seater plane.
Joanna and I were joined by Joanna’s assistant Anne and our friend Julia Lynx who produced our concert and workshop in Banff the next weekend. I had seen disturbing images in National Geographic" but nothing prepared me for the hellish scene we witnessed. We flew over mile after mile of devastated land. What was once pristine boreal forest was ravaged and turned into dark pits of tar and poison. This scene stretched out as far as we could see and continued as we flew for the next hour over the landscape.
The toll on the land, the animals, the Athabasca River, all of nature and the indigenous people’s who have lived for generations on the land is beyond heartbreaking. We met with a young First Nation activist named Gitz Derange. He described the epidemic of cancer that has shown up in his community and in the local wildlife. He also described the terrible effects the tar sands exploitation is having locally, namely the widespread abuse of drugs and alcohol, prostitution and crime, and the prevalence of drug abuse by tar sands workers. Gitz is doing great work with the Ghost River Rediscovery Project supporting local native youth.
I highly recommend the book “Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent” by Andrew Nikiforuk for a detailed expose on the tar sands. Please consider writing letters to the government of Canada, Alberta and your US representatives. You can also support the Pembina Institute which is a great organization working for sustainable energy in Canada. Here is a petition you can sign from the Rainforest Action Network. And let’s all support efforts to stop global warming and make the transition in our own lives away from fossil fuels and non-sustainable energy.

I have also written a song about the experience that i will be performing in upcoming concerts and recording in 2010.

Please also visit Joanna Macy’s website to read her description of our experience and to learn more about the incredible work she is doing.

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