USSF: Tar Sands and the Boreal Forests

Clayton Thomas-Muller of IEN begins the Tar Sands Peoples Movement Assembly. Photo: Petermann/GJEP

Report from the Tar Sands Peoples’ Movement Assembly (PMA) at the USSF, Wednesday, June 23, 2010

By Anne Petermann, Global Justice Ecology Project

The Tar Sands Gigaproject represents the future of fossil fuel exploitation.  As petroleum becomes harder to access, business as usual dictates that the petroleum industry go to greater and more extreme lengths to suck out the final remains of global oil reserves.  From the depths of oceans to the petroleum trapped in the soil of the tar sands of Alberta, literally no stone should go unturned.  This means that in the name of oil extraction the boreal forests unfortunate enough to grow over the tar sand deposits will have to be removed.

We’re talking about forests over an area the size of Florida.  Forests that are part of the second largest forest carbon sink in the world.  We’re talking about the unimaginably toxic impacts on the aboriginal communities that have lived in and with these forests since time immemorial.  As person after person testified during the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Tar Sands PMA, the tar sands have killed people slowly and painfully in the tar sands project areas, in the communities where the oil is refined, and in the communities where the pipelines are located.  The tar sands, as one grandmother explained, “are a monster.”  And the pipelines are planned to head all the way to the coast of New England for export around the world.

Per barrel of synthetic tar sands oil:

4-6 barrels of water poisoned

4 tons of earth removed

And just to add insult to injury, much of this tar sands oil is being used to fuel the U.S. war on Iraq. (the US military, by the way, is the largest single user of fossil fuels on the planet)

I think at this point, we’re all clear that climate change means we need to end the use of fossil fuels….like, yesterday.  The horrific oil spill in the Gulf and the highly disturbing  footage of its toll which rolls in daily, are merely the latest and most extreme wake up call.

But instead, the trend of business as usual refuses to budge.  It is moving in two distinct, yet intertwined directions: extreme fossil fuel development (such as the tar sands and deep water ocean drilling) and large-scale development of fossil fuel alternatives—both of which massively threaten communities and ecosystems, and both of which will devastate forests and worsen the climate crisis.

Keeping forests standing, as it turns out, is both key toward stabilizing the climate, and a key part of the transformation toward the better world we’re all working for.  And yet these forests are under more threat than ever.

To understand this and put it into context, let me first take you to the World Forestry Congress which took place in Buenos Aires in October 2009.

The World Forestry Congress is a major gathering of timber industry executives, foresters and their non-governmental organization (NGO) lackies that happens every six years to evaluate trends in forestry and how best to exploit forests and maximize profits.  Indigenous Peoples have very little role here.  This is where the ruling class whites figure out the future of forests… and in turn, the role of those forests in filling their bank accounts.  And what came out of this, the thirteenth World Forestry Congress, was positively chilling.

The twin strategies of the WFC were: REDD (the UN and World Bank scheme to supposedly “Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”) and wood-based bioenergy promotion, both to be sold to an unwitting public as components of climate mitigation.  Whoa, you say, how can an industry designed to clearcut forests profit from a scheme called “reducing emissions from deforestation”?  And how can they possibly promote it at the same time as trying to exponentially increase the demand for wood through wood-based bioenergy development?  And how could that be considered good for climate change? And why on earth would big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International support this nonsense?  And why is the Forest Stewardship Council—which supposedly carries the banner of sustainable forestry—behind it too?


The newest trend in marketing is Green.  Green, green, green.  Everybody’s gotta be green.  British Petroleum became “Beyond Petroleum”—whoops…not quite.  So if ya wanna continue business as usual, you have to paint it green.  Doesn’t matter if the paint is toxic…

But the climate crisis and the Gulf oil spill have opened the doors to enable the timber industry, through a bizarre and twisted logic, to claim the front lines of the renewable energy debate and climate mitigation strategies.

And if the global public is demanding action on climate change and the U.S. public wants to have its cake and eat it too (in other words continue our unsustainable lifestyle but pretend we’ve done our part), then the dual strategy of the timber industry makes perfect sense.

You heard Obama in the Oval Office talking about the Gulf oil spill.  We need alternative energy.  Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he ain’t talkin’ windmills and solar panels.  He’s talking nukes, “clean coal” and cutting down trees—for electricity, for liquid fuels, for butane, and whatever else they can come up with.

And this finally brings us back to Canada’s boreal forest—by way of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.

In this agreement, timber corporations and big NGOs got together to decide the fate of large expanses of boreal forest on Indigenous lands.  Hailed as a great victory for the forests and especially the dwindling herds of woodland caribou, the agreement, in reality, is not worth the paper on which it’s printed.  Riddled with loopholes big enough to drive logging trucks through, the agreement is designed to reframe the Canadian forest industry as climate-friendly.

It is designed to shift the boreal forest into bioenergy production, and to provide the groundwork to claim carbon offsets for the forests that don’t—for the moment—get cut.

One of the loopholes that pops up repeatedly is the fact that industry will be allowed to break the agreement for the sake of “forest health”.  In other words, they will use the excuse of pine bark beetle infestation to clearcut at will.

This agreement is loaded with forest industry-speak.  It goes on and on about how their “sustainable forest management” will be governed by the guidelines of “all three certification schemes” (including those created by and for corporations like International Paper). This means these guidelines will be crap.

So to sum up, industry is using this agreement to greenwash their plans to log the boreal forest for woodchips for bioenergy and “bioproducts” (i.e. replacing fossil fuels to make plastics, chemicals, textiles, etc) and to make it sound “climate friendly”.  And I can pretty well guarantee that they will also try to fit this under REDD or a similar forest carbon offset scheme to make money on both ends—as was heavily promoted to timber industry execs at the World Forestry Congress.

Which brings us back to the Tar sands Gigaproject.  The tar sands project is causing the country of Canada to have some of the fastest growing greenhouse gas emissions in the world.  How convenient if there is simultaneously development of an agreement that supposedly protects vast expanses of boreal forest.  Which, quite coincidentally, could be claimed as offsetting those very unfortunate emissions being caused by the Tar sands.

But this, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.  They’re all one cascading market mechanism….forest offsets, biodiversity offsets (yes, you heard me right), the wood-based “bioeconomy” and  “bioenergy”…like one great ‘bailout’ for the climate, but with no real benefits.  And this market mechanism force is snowballing in the UN Climate process, the UN Biodiversity process and in no other than the World Bank and of course at the powerful urging of industrialized nations, as well as wannabe countries like Brazil.  It is one scary future scenario.  But more on that later.

To learn more about this bizarre future for the world’s forests, come to our workshop “Forests and Climate Change” which has merged with the workshop on biomass and the bioeconomy in cobo hall, d3-21, Thursday, June 24, 1-5pm.

To learn more about the tar sands gigaproject, go to:

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