George Monbiot stirs debate over fate of tar sands

Posted by admin on Oct 10th, 2008

Georgia Straight. By Matthew Burrows

George Monbiot wants the Alberta tar-sands industry shut down “as quickly as possible”. The best-selling author, Guardian columnist, and environmentalist told the Georgia Straight he would like to see “large-scale direct actions” to make that happen. When Monbiot granted the Straight an interview in late August, in a small restaurant in the Welsh town of Maccynleth, where he resides, an election had not yet been called. Canadians are now officially headed to the polls on October 14, and Monbiot—who penned the 2006 book Heat, to high acclaim—said Canada must step up on the environmental front.

“There is a huge gulf, it seems, in Canada between people’s awareness and their determination to do something to protect the environment and the actual results of Canadian policy,” Monbiot said on August 21. “That gap has to be closed, and it has to be closed very quickly. One of the first actions that needs to be taken is to shut down the tar sands. I would like to see large-scale direct actions aimed at the tar sands, with the objective of ending that industry as quickly as possible.”

Read a complete transcript of the Georgia Straight’s interview with Guardian columnist Georgia Monbiot here.

Michael Byers, NDP candidate in Vancouver Centre, told the Straight that climate change is the “principal reason” he entered politics. He said his wife gave him the go-ahead to run after she read Heat, and he noted that he is a “big fan” of Monbiot. On September 25, a CBC news clip played up Byers’s statement that the tar sands should be shut down. However, Byers said the clip took his comments out of context.

“What I should have said, had I known I was going to be clipped, was that the tar sands should be wound down,” Byers explained by phone.

Byers noted that NDP leader Jack Layton successfully steered the Climate Change Accountability Act through the House of Commons on June 4, and in doing so secured agreement from the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois that any future Canadian government is bound to an 80-percent reduction in Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

“That is an 80-percent reduction over 1990 levels,” Byers said. “If you do the mathematics on that, it entails the shutting-down of the tar sands or the sequestering of the CO2 produced by them. When you add that to the NDP climate-change policy, which is to withdraw all of the massive tax cuts to the tar sands as well as [placing] firm caps on all of the large emitters—which will be ratcheted down fairly quickly—and a massive investment in alternative-energy technologies, you are going to see a winding-down of the tar sands. It is rapidly becoming the single largest point source for carbon dioxide on the planet.”

However, Byers added that he “would not” support the direct action advocated by Monbiot.

“I believe in the rule of law, and I believe in using peaceful mechanisms of political change, which is why I am running for political office,” he said. “I would put my decision to run for office as an example of how I believe that existing political structures need to be engaged by those who are fully aware of the climate-change crisis and committed to doing something serious about it.”

Vancouver Centre Conservative candidate and former two-term MLA Lorne Mayencourt disagreed with Monbiot’s analysis.

“I think that the economic devastation that would follow a shutdown of the tar sands would rival the Great Depression,” Mayencourt told the Straight in a phone interview. “The reality of it is that the tar sands employ in the neighbourhood of 65,000 employees, and having them all of a sudden not be able to work would be a huge problem. Canadians know that they need to buy gasoline to drive their cars, to get to work, to get their kids to school or sporting events or what have you. So we are going to be using fuel as we go forward in the next little while. Shutting down the tar sands would be a pretty bad thing to happen in the Canadian economy.”

Monbiot said he was involved in recent direct action to oppose open-pit coal mining in Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.

“I’d never come across it, but it was a huge, huge mine,” Monbiot said of the Ffos-y-Fran mine. “I mean, not huge by Albertan standards, but by British standards this is a very big mine for a very small country.…So these people said, ‘Look, we’ve tried everything. We need some direct action here.’ So I came back here and spoke to some friends, and they assembled the best group of activists ever assembled. It was fantastic. There were only about 25 of us, but we shut down the mine completely on two days and managed to give it much more profile than it had before. Suddenly, now open-cast [pit] mining is back on the agenda.”

Within Wales, the protest has helped to create pressure for much stricter conditions for mining, including a 500-metre buffer zone between a mine and the nearest home, Monbiot added.

“What we didn’t know—and we have since found out, thanks to a lobby group called the Coal Forum—[is] that would sterilize all the remaining useful coal reserves in Wales,” he said. “Of course, the mining communities were built right on the coal. That would effectively wipe out open-cast mining in Wales. And then, the Coal Forum points out, if this spreads to England, there would be none there either. So we have found a way of stopping them.”

In a 2006 foreword to the Canadian edition of Heat, Monbiot called Prime Minister Stephen Harper an “irresolute wimp” for claiming Canada could no longer meet its Kyoto targets.

“It strikes me that Harper is now greatly improving his rhetoric but doing as little as he can get away with,” Monbiot said in the restaurant. “That’s my impression. It’s a question of creating enough of an impression of action to prevent this from becoming a major political liability. Of course, Canada’s projected emissions are catastrophic, thanks largely to the tar-sands operations in Alberta.”

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