Wednesday, November 02, 2011

But oil floats on water, right?

Obama raises acquifer concerns

"I think folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren't going to say to themselves, 'We'll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health,' or if rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected."
Canadians, and especially Albertans, made that decision a long time ago.  This is what Canadians think of the choice between drinking water and resource extraction:

We're sort of famous for this.

And we even put up roadside attractions to celebrate the destruction:

(True story: All the nickel mined in Sudbury ended up in that nickel.  Yes, all that destruction to create a metallic giant-ball-of-string for tourists.) 

Those shots are just from Sudbury.  You want more from Canada?  I can show you more.

Whoops.  I was looking for an industrial hog farm in the southern Prairies, but that's an industrial hog farm from Texas.  Each of those white squares is a gigantic hog barn, with >1000 hogs in it.  Presumably because they're not foreigners who care little for the local's kids and/or folkways they deal with all that hog waste in a safe and responsible manner, and dump it far from the Oglala, on farmland no one is using, causing salinization no one cares about.  Healthy salinization.

What's a little weird about the intense concerns expressed about the acquifer is they don't extend far, and they're brand spanking new, as new as an Android phone at your local Wal-Mart.  When you come flying out of the Little Belts south of Helena on I-15 - a suburban chain of the Rockies that pretty much defines bucolic - on your way to Dillon and the gigantic alluvial plain between the continental divide proper and the ring of peaks around the Yellowstone caldera, you come upon this:

Butte, Montana: setting for Red Harvest, Frank Little's last speech, birthplace of Bob "Evel" Knievel and a gigantic scar ripped in the side of the mountain with the requisite tailings ponds leaking into pretty much anything that holds water.  Environmental nightmare.  And right in my very own backyard, right now, to remind everyone I'm not accusing anyone of mindless hypocrisy:

This is one of three factories ripping apart Exshaw Mountain on the boundaries of Banff National Park.  We've gone hiking behind it; there's a very popular little canyon walk on the same rock that makes such good magnetite, magnesium carbonate and/or cement.

I do not begrudge the people of Nebraska their concerns.  Obama's pull quote is good news for environmentalists and local people everywhere in North America.  There's some talk in Canada about how if Keystone isn't built then we'll pipe our bitumen to China, across the last temperate rainforest in the world and into supertankers that will then thread a maze of granitic reefs and islands that constitute critical habitat for salmon, whales and a good portion of the northern Pacific ocean biomass.  Because if you won't let us leak into your acquifer, then we'll lay waste to an even larger swathe of natural habitat and the Chinese will be our new BFFs.  (Because they won't be ruthless, right?  When has China ever not been fair and square with resource-rich locals?  Well except for that one time, when have they not been fair?)  And in rebuttal to the non-local concerns about Keystone, you see a lot of disingenuous talk about how the tar/oilsands cover an area that's only 300 miles square, total, which, if you've ever been to northern Alberta is really (honestly) like a postage stamp (remember those?) on the living room carpet.  There are individual clearcuts in northern Alberta and northern BC and even probably Oregon that are larger than 300 square miles.   

The disclaimer is disingenuous because once you've got an outlet for this stuff that isn't based on dropping it into train cars, you very quickly get the economies of scale that allow you to lay waste to all of northern Alberta.  And if you think Albertans are good stewards of land who wouldn't dream of bulldozing the top 30 feet of carbon-absorbing and -sequestering biomass off a million square miles of moose/bear/wolf/wolverine habitat, I've got some prime farmland next to a hog barn in southern Alberta to sell you.

I do think the Keystone pipeline debate is more heated than it needs to be because (a) TransCanada is a Canadian company, which in Nebraska is code for "foreigners," and don't tell me they're just like Americans because you can tell it from their name.  And (b) TransCanada has been a total dick about the project.  They're behaving like Nebraska is Alberta, where for more than a century oil companies could pretty much do whatever they wanted if there was something underneath your land they wanted, and if that happened to fuck up your livelihood, say killing your cattle with leaky wellheads or grading a gigantic right-of-way through the middle of your alfalfa, well, let's just remember its oil that pays the bills.  

Nebraska is not Alberta, and Americans will not sit quietly for fifty years and suggest someone ought to do something about that problem, especially if they've been on the land since before the Oklahoma land rush.  They may vote GOP (and in Nebraska that's a virtual certainty) but if the hated Kenyan Muslim Socialist Abortionist President's interests happen to align with theirs, why, that's just fine.  Because that's how you get things done: by working together.  And if Obama ends up touring a farm as part of the campaign against TransCanada where fifty years ago his father might have swung from a tree, well, that's just America growing up.  The national myths are predictable and corny and horrifying, but they grease the wheels of commerce and compromise and get things rolling.  In Canada, because everything gets done through the local party contacts, you only see a protest and action on something like this if TransCanada hasn't spread enough money around and hired someone's nephew.  

But Nebraska has another problem it will soon need to deal with, significantly more lucrative than the money Keystone may or may not put in people's pockets.  The Elk Creek mine is another Anaconda, and Elk Creek another Butte, easily, because its no snowclone to say that rare earth minerals are the copper of the 21st century.  In fact in the 21st century a good portion of the copper running modern electronics will be replaced with rare earth minerals.  And if you think a metal straw sucking liquified rock from Hardisty to Houston is a danger to your water supply and way of life, just think what rare earth mining could do.

So all I can say is to the people of Nebraska is: Good Luck.  If you can stop Keystone maybe someone can use that as a model for Northern Gateway.  Canadians don't understand what's happening there, and if in twenty years an American company runs a bitumen pipeline across the Oglala without protest people here will think you're hypocrites and anti-Canadian, but they think you're all hypocrites and idiots anyway.  Its in their projection of their own casual and pervasive anti-Americanism that they assume you might be anti-Canadian, when you don't really give a shit, really, which makes them humble and mad and slightly wistful because the cool kid on the block is better friends with the big crazy violent Mexican family even though we're constantly handing him stuff we think he might like.  

We'll try to hand that stuff to the cute Chinese girl who's just moved in.  Hopefully she pays more attention.  

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