Does Fort Mac Look Like Hiroshima?

Neil Young said many provocative things about the oilsands, but the one that became a lightning rod for criticism was this: “The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima”.*  He later explained that the reference to Fort McMurray was meant to symbolize all of the oilsands operations in northern Alberta.

Is the comparison appropriate?

Michiko Sakata in a letter to the Calgary Herald said yes:

I am from Nagasaki, which was A-bombed together with Hiroshima. My late sister was one of the survivors.

Last fall, I was at the Natural History Museum in London and saw the exhibition for the wildlife photographer of the year. A photograph of the oilsands entitled Oil Spoils, by the Canadian photographer Garth Lenz, was the runner-up for the World in Our Hands award.

Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated and thousands of people were killed, the aerial photograph of the oilsands which I saw for the first time is much more scary, ugly and disturbing than photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I agree with Neil Young regarding this matter. We should all work to stop the further terrible destruction of the planet.

Michiko Sakata, North Vancouver, B.C.

Here’s the Garth Lenz’s photograph “Oil Spoils”.

Mr Lenz describes his subject as the landscape—both natural and industrial.  He uses photographs to tell an ecological story.  They’re brilliant.

He produces haunting photographs of large scale industrial operations from all over the world and admits to being “gobsmacked” by the sheer size and scale of the Athabasca oil sands.  He describes its colours, shapes and light in organic terms.

“It’s like this growing thing and its roadways are like metaphors for this industry just reaching out.  I keep thinking if you look at what we have achieved with the oilsands and we applied that same kind of commitment in research, money, entrepreneurship and technology to some kind of renewable energy, what would that look like in 10, 20 even 30 years?”**

What indeed?

*The Telegraph, Sept 13, 2013

**Victoria Times Colonist, Nov 29,  2013

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23 Responses to Does Fort Mac Look Like Hiroshima?

  1. Matt Palmer says:

    From a pure visual perspective, the sight of oil sands mines is jarring and disturbing. Pristine boreal forest has been ripped from its natural foundation in the name of human survival, progress, and economy. I recall well my first helicopter flight over the oil sands mines, and was left with a feeling of traveling over a sci-fi wasteland.

    Okay, that’s how I felt and that is valid. I don’t know that I agree with the Hiroshima reference because my associations with that are of a human violence upon humans that is unfathomable, especially as it was unnecessary. Thousands of lives were extinguished instantly, and many more suffered over longer periods of time. That does not mean that I put less value on the environment in Fort McMurray, I just don’t agree with the comparison, but Neil Young’s feelings are valid for him and others.

    People will continue to debate this, and as long as the debate is respectful, that’s okay.

    But, how many of us look at the places we live, cities, towns, neighbourhoods, and consider that we live on land that, like the boreal forest above the oil sands, once served a useful ecological purpose? Massive ecosystems around the world have been permanently devastated. No one ever talks about the reclamation of New York City, Paris, or Calgary. Were these lands any less valuable to the plants and animals that survived on them?

    One of the largest solar farms in the world was built a few years ago in Florida, wiping out a swamp – likely a very delicate and essential ecosystem. Environmentalists fight against solar projects in the California deserts – because they will destroy the local ecosystem. Will the wind farms proposed off the shores of the eastern US impact the marine life and bird life that live in that area? What about the impacts from harvesting all the natural resources required to build all the wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines required for the new energy economy?

    It’s easy and natural (and perhaps necessary) to be gobsmacked by the size and scale of the oil sands. Reclamation is at least in the game plan, and while experts will argue about the success of this, some great minds are working to solve complex problems. The lands reclaimed on oil sands sites will never be the same as what was there before, but we have to do all we can to succeed at making them new ecosystems that will sustain and provide value over time.

    Neil Young has succeeded in getting people to talk. Let’s hope we can keep the conversation on topic, on the things that really matter, rather than record burnings and ad hominems.

    As someone said to me during the filming of my documentary on the oil sands “Pay Dirt”, “Nature bats last.”

    • Matt, excellent, excellent comments. I knew when I posted this that I’d slipped off into an incendiary side issue; unfortunately a letter in today’s Herald pushed me over the edge. The writer said Neil Young was ignorant of history because: “Hiroshima was a good event, not a bad event.”

      So agreed, it’s time to refocus. Everyone who’s commented on this post is asking the same question—how do we get a balanced discussion going? Neil’s done his bit. He’s ensured that the ACFN will have the funds they need to mount a legal challenge and brought the oilsands back into the public eye. What are we going to do? Hound the Premier, the Energy Minister and our MLAs? Ask for an all party task force to review the issues dispassionately with all Albertans? What do you think?

      PS Your very last sentence reminded me of something I used to hear as a teenager growing up in a pulp mill town in BC. It emitted an awful smell of sulphur, but whenever someone complained about it they were told “That’s the smell of money”. And it was—until the mill closed. The town has been struggling ever since.

      • Matt Palmer says:

        Well, my answer Susan is going to be in my documentary. It’s very frustrating to continue to have to push to get funding for it. We have a great plan and strategy, but these things are not cheap to make and I have put in five years now of my own blood, sweat and tears – and money. We now have a web company coming on board to help us build a website and hopefully that will help us in our pursuit of sponsors who want to be part of telling a bigger, better and hopeful story. We need to shift consciousness around this issue.

        If you have any ideas let me know.

  2. Matt Palmer says:

    I think all the ideas you suggested are also necessary by the way. What I hope my project will do is create a greater context and understanding for the discussion, greater energy literacy. A story that gives global scale and reach.

    • Yes, I posted my comment before I saw yours. I really like the idea of a documentary that would present a balanced overview of this issue. Your photography is extremely moving. I’m sure your documentary would be very compelling and I agree that it’s one of the best ways to reach everyone.

      We all own this issue. We all need to understand it and be accountable for the decisions we make around it. Your documentary will go a long way to getting us all on the same page! I wish you the very best in attracting sponsors. Please keep pushing. If you pull it off you could help us change the world!

      OK that sentence may have been a bit over the top but you know what I mean. Thanks Matt.

  3. MoS says:

    Another way of comparison is to consider that Hiroshima was rebuilt over two decades. Fort Mac will be despoiled for a century, perhaps two, after the bitumen fields collapse.

  4. Midge says:

    great post as usual! I flew directly over the oilsands a few years ago on an international flight en route to Calgary on a clear day. At 40,000 feet, you couldn’t see it all from one window. Hiroshima? Devastation for sure, but hopefully not radioactive yet.

    Another brilliant Canadian photographer is Edward Burtynsky whose show “Water” makes one understand exactly how priceless our landscape and water is, and how urgent it is to take care with it. http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/Photographs/Water.html

    • Midge, these are amazing photos! A friend who’s quite knowledgeable about the impact we’re having on the environment the world over said that our generation may be able to skirt by the worst impacts but our children and their children will be grappling with what we’ve left behind. Her point was that it’s immoral for us to place this burden on future generations. I agree.

  5. I made it!! says:

    Pursuit of money, with ugly results… why? because we haven’t learnt yet – if you chop down one tree at least plant 6 in its place, so that you will have some trees in the future – one to sit under, one to chop down again and one for Mother Nature. What are they going to do to fix this mess?

    • Imadeit, you nailed it. Your example of replacing the trees is just the tip of the iceberg. Even more disturbing is the fact that, according to geologist Wallace King, the tailings “ponds” cover almost 200 square kilometres and less than 1% have been certified as reclaimed. The PC government has a great record of setting targets and then backing away when industry complains that they’re “too aggressive”. Makes you wonder, who’s running the show here, government or industry?

  6. Elaine Fleming says:

    I also think it is important to “pan out” space and time-wise to consider how development of resources in general impacts our natural environment/ecosystems. It sounds like Matt, you attempt to do that with your documentaries. The oilsands development is on such a huge scale, however, and not only is the process destructive to our natural world, but also the product in every stage of its existence. It is hard to think of a positive end to this disastrous course of action without collective, timely action (on a massive scale) and intelligent and very strong leadership. I guess I’m talking about development of alternate energy sources, quick-quick. I keep hearing that the power of the oil companies is too great, and the greed that drives the industry is insatiable. However, like you and me and many others, Susan, maybe their CEO’s, too, are worried about their children’s and grandchildren’s future. Or maybe not.

  7. Elaine, funny you should mention CEOs. I’ve talked with a few about these issues. Their typical response is (1) the problems are over stated and (2) someone will invent a new technology that fix everything. Meanwhile there’s money to be made in them thar hills! Kind of like getting into a car with no brakes, flooring the gas and heading for the cliff, confident in the knowledge that your passenger will figure out a way to stop the car before you go over the edge. Bizarre thinking.
    Speaking of bizarre thinking, both the provincial and federal governments confirmed today that there will be no slow down in oilsands expansion. Alberta’s environment minister Robin Campbell said production will almost double from 2012 numbers by 2020 (that’s 7 years from now). Federal environment minister Leona Aglukkaq said Ottawa is simply dealing with the demand from industry. Wouldn’t it be nice is a government decided to deal with the demand from its citizens!

  8. MoS says:

    Completely (and, I suspect, deliberately) ignored by the Canadian media was the report just submitted to the U.N. by the Harper government in which our government admitted Canada’s GHG emissions will soar by 38% by 2030, mostly due to Athabasca bitumen expansion.
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/14/canada-carbon-emissions-2030-tar-sands
    The U.N. suspects even those estimates are cooked. You won’t find that report mentioned anywhere – CBC didn’t cover it, nor did CTV. None of the major papers ran with it. Neither Trudeau the Lesser nor Thomas Mulcair have uttered a peep. It’s the dirty secret nobody in Canada wants or has the courage to talk about.

  9. Julie Ali says:

    Hi Susan,
    I’ve looked at photographs of Fort McMurray and they do look like moonscape pictures.

    Maybe part of the problem is that remediation isn’t successful or profitable and so isn’t happening. Remediation of the tailings ponds for example hasn’t happened and won’t happen until they find a cost effective way to deal with the toxic soup. I rather doubt they will find any sort of solution to this problem. Folks who have been doing research with reference to the tailings ponds are still not able to remediate them in a cost effective way–other than to leave them as a lake district for future generations; researchers are even retiring now without having found the cure for the toxic pits. I suspect that the industry will walk away from this problem once the money is made and we will all be left with the problem which will continue as the lake district we never wanted.

    I’m sure that there is some required remediation work done on the land– to return the oilsands to a semblance of what it was before but I don’t believe they can rebuild an entire boreal forest by putting down grass and planting trees. They’re moving land that has living creatures and working it over in a deep dish way. The contents of this ecosystem–the insects, birds and animals are displaced and will they return to the sanitized land developments that are produced by oil companies after the work is done? It may happen but it won’t be as lively and complex as it was originally in my mind. I think that there will be a decline in complexity and what will be the consequences of this decline? The decline in complexity is such a fascinating area and I suspect that we will get a weakened ecosystem because when one species falls, other species that depended to some extent on the lost species may be accelerated in their departure deadlines.

    It is a shame we don’t actually have responsible development but instead have greed and gold rush development operating in Alberta. Folks don’t seem to have a good grasp of science anymore. Don’t they know we can’t live all alone on a moonscape? Of course folks don’t seem to value marsh land and boreal forest as much as they do the oilsands work but they should. The trees are the lungs of the world. The marsh land is important. We are dependent on each of these non-energy resources that are not oil based but important for our survival.

    It is a shame that we are in such a rush to make money that we don’t need (in my opinion) but certainly the oil industries want to make more and more profits. Corporations never have any restraint. And of course our provincial and federal governments want them to make profits so that we can have jobs and so on and so forth….but surely there could be multiple sources of income developed? Why aren’t we doing more investments in non-resource based areas?

    I have never been to Fort McMurray but I lived in Hinton, Alberta for a while and the smell of money from industry there was not pretty. We do need to make a living but I think in Alberta, resource development has never been well planned and certainly environmental regulation has been paltry. In fact, I think that there has been a cover up of pollution events so that we were ignorant of the bad performance of the government of Alberta—with reference to environmental oversight–and I believe there is a continual failure in performance of the Tories with reference to getting big oil to clean up its polluted sites. Why they fail to get the industry to cleanup its messes is beyond me but perhaps this is because they don’t represent citizens but do represent the oil and gas companies. I think that if the Tories don’t represent citizens, they should simply go get other jobs. We need folks to represent us in government and if they are all CAPP party members they should simply go to lucrative positions in big oil rather than subverting democracy.

    I also think a government engaged in responsible oil development —does not make Wiebo Ludwigs out of rural Albertans who encounter problems with oil development such as well water on fire, the emissions problems with Baytex in the Peace area and the dumping/contamination of the land/water of citizens. I feel that there needs to be actual repercussions for the oil and gas industry in order for there to be good performance by all the industry stakeholders. In other words, many of the companies may do a good job but certainly companies like CNRL are getting away with a major environmental disaster. This company has polluted an unnamed drinking water aquifer in Cold Lake and is being protected by all levels of government and the AER —and we still do not have any sort of laboratory test results to show us the level of pollution in this incident. I don’t think the AER which is paid by CAPP will do anything about these environmental disasters. I don’t think the government of Alberta or the federal government of Canada will do anything to discipline the oil and gas companies. Citizens will have to go to court and get justice. This is what is required in the foster care system as well. A series of lawsuits that take the government of Alberta to court for its failures or that take oil companies to court (and generate unfavorable publicity) will result in changes with reference to child welfare, pollution and other problems in Alberta. These folks in government and in the industry seem to be very indifferent to the comments of citizens and seem even at times –to think that they are above the laws of the land.

    Hopefully we can vote them all out in the next elections which are unfortunately years away–and I think that a period of time as the opposition party will do wonders to increase the performance of the Tories. Better yet, a downsizing of the oil monarchs to ordinary citizens might be the best way to ensure that we don’t have a continuation of the tailings pond lake district saga. If we don’t vote them out, I am pretty sure we will have a permanent moonscape to hand down to our kids rather than billions of dollars in the Heritage Trust Fund that were all given away as part of the Alberta Advantage Program to industry. It’s too bad I was asleep at the wheel of democracy when all of this sort of dirty politics was going on for the last forty years and more in Alberta.

    • MoS says:

      The major bitumen producers recently floated a scheme to simply drain those tailing ponds into the mining pits once they’re exhausted. Their thinking is that, give it a century or so, and those artificial tailings lakes could clean themselves and turn into freshwater resources. Of course that’s like giving bank robbers a century-long head start for their getaway. And who would we chase a century from now when we found it was all a hoax?

      It’s sort of like their approach to carbon capture and sequestration. The energy producers have said they’re willing to try it on two conditions – their obligation to monitor and maintain the safety of the wells in which the pressurized CO2 would be stored is limited to 75 years and, following that, the provincial and federal governments would be on the hook to monitor and maintain those wells and indemnify the energy companies for all damages should the pressurized CO2 (which is insanely deadly) leaks due to a well failure or seismic event. Since that compressed CO2 would remain lethal for many centuries, they’re basically saying they’ll pump it underground and hand us the keys.

      • MoS, this is exactly why Albertans need a dialogue with industry–not with their engineers who’ll explain in painstaking incomprehensible detail why draining a toxic tailings pond into a mining pit or CCS is an appropriate “reclamation” method, but with their CEOs who can respond to common sense questions like given that toxic tailings are going to hang in suspension for decades why is storing them a mining pit any better than a tailings pond? What happens if the mining pits (or tailings ponds for that matter) leak into our water supplies? What happens if the CO2 escapes due to a seismic event? And why, pray tell should the people of Alberta, not your company be on the hook if it all goes pear shaped? It’s nuts.

        Every time I hear stuff like this I think back to the Redford speech I attended in November. Her answer to every question relating to the oilsands was this: “trust industry”. Talk about abdicating the role of government! Here’s the link https://susanonthesoapbox.com/2013/11/20/alison-redfords-vision-for-alberta-trust-industry-gulp/

    • Julie, you’ve provided an excellent overview of what happens when a government has no strategy other than to “trust industry”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out a corporation’s purpose (maximize shareholder value) and a government’s purpose (serve the public interest) are not one and the same. Nevertheless Ms Redford believes that following industry’s lead is the panacea; a bizarre variant of the “trickle down” economic theory (which is obviously not working).

      I was completely baffled by Redford’s decision to set Al Gore straight on the oilsands when she bumps into him at Davos. What’s she going to say? Yes, we’re engaged in the largest carbon extraction effort in the world and no, Alberta and Canada have not yet implemented effective environmental legislation, let alone enforcement, to reduce greenhouse gases, but (here’s the leap in logic) oilsands extraction has no real detrimental impact on climate change.

      Given MoS’s comment about Canada’s report to the UN indicating a 38% increase in GHG emissions by 2013 (which he correctly points sank like a stone without any commentary from the very media who trashed Neil Young at every opportunity) the only way Ms Redford can justify her position is if she believes that oilsands’ GHG emissions will not impact climate change. In effect she’d be denying that climate change exists. Given how she raked Danielle Smith over the coals for questioning climate change, this would be the height of hypocrisy. But then again, we’re talking about the PC government, what else is new?

  10. David Grant says:

    Actually, when I saw pictures like this produced by author Andrew Nikiforuk on a talk about the Tar Sands, the image that came to my mind was the moon and not Hiroshima, although I can see some of the parallels. This comparison is tricky as Matt says because Hiroshima has all of the violence connected with the event, but that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been violence of a different nature done to Fort Mac. As I stated on my posting on the Desmogblog.ca in relation to an article titled Neil Young: Productive or Polarizing, that this issue is difficult because it doesn’t matter what analogies or language to describe the Tar Sands, it just doesn’t matter what we say we are going to face criticism of it. We should understand it and like those concerned with other causes, not be deterred by the criticism that we get. People in Alberta are always concerned that we will be branded as unpatriotic, evil, communist, etc. We need to get over that and speak out and try to engage in those who aren’t involved in this issue.

    • David, it would be helpful for all of us to understand why these issues are so difficult to discuss. When I researched the issue I came across an equal number of articles written by the “left” and the “right” arguing that “those other guys” are just too emotional and don’t listen to facts. Whatever the cause all sides (there are more than two) need to keep talking (calmly if possible).

      • carlosbeca says:

        Well Susan I agree with you that both argue about the same things but there is a difference. To me it is like the discussion between a smoker and a non-smoker. Both have the right to choose but the fact is that the smoker is the one who is causing the non-smoker to not be able to breath properly, he is the polluter, so the discussion is not balanced to start with.
        In the case of the Tar Sands discussion we have a similar situation. The government gives the Tar Sands companies clear and fast access to them but stops the enviromental groups from doing the same. The conservatives muzzle environmental scientists and promote pseudo reports done by people that are paid by the industry. So there is no balanced discussion. David, the reason many people do not speak out is because they are not allowed to. Most Albertans I talk to would like to see the moderate development of our reosurces so that we can keep on top of pollution levels as well as have the time to better deal with the what the exploration of these sands leaves behind. With proper royalties and appropriate taxation levels we can even increase our standards of living without have to go crazy on full development. So to me the greatest issue is more the proper management of our resources. It does not matter if it is the right or the left. What we need in my opinion is a much better democratic process that allows a major discussion on how better develop our resources. We do not have that now and we will not have it in the near future because the corporations involved and the Conservatives are not interested in that. We do not really have a provincial government, we have a Petroleum Association running our affairs.

  11. David Grant says:

    I regards to Carlos is right about the fact that there are lots of Albertans who want a better development of the tar sands, but I would also say that there are plenty of Albertans who don’t want to give up the dream of suburbia. That, I think, is quite telling. I actually had a conversation with a woman in the bar of Fort Edmonton who said that while she doesn’t like what Dow Chemical was doing, she wasn’t going to be very critical of the company and do get involved in political action because it gave her a such a good life and wasn’t going to give it up. Albertans and indeed people in North America and the West, have to make some choices as to what kind of future do they want. If they want to stay on the current course, then there are clear consequences to that or take a different route that involves a more sustainable one. We should always be as calm as we can, but this is quite challenging.

  12. Carlos Beca says:

    David I totally agree with you but I have to remind you that it is not just the West. All of Canada is benefitting tremendously from the Oil Sands and it annoys me a great deal when people in the East, especially Quebec, criticizes us about it. Alberta contributed 100 billion dollars to Canadian coffers and here we struglle with our Health Care, our education ..etc. Oil is at this moment keeping Canada afloat. So this is not a West issue. If anything we are the ones who will be left with all the pollution to clean up and I am sure the rest of Canada will not be very concerned in pitching in. I am not sure where you are, but I can very surely say that Canadians would not be where they are today, especially after the 2008 crisis had not been for Alberta and now Saskatchewan and BC all three based on oil and gas.
    I totally agree with you with the sustainable path and I am sure that if we chose it, we would all be much better off in the long term. Unfortunately human beings, in general, do not make those choices if it means short term pain. Also that decision needs trust in ours leaders and that is something we do not have at all regardless of the province or the federal level. This is why a better democracy is crucial to our survival and that again is basically on the ropes in Canada. I just heard on the news this morning that Switzerland is having a referendum today to decide the levels of immigration in their country. Wow what a democratic concept and respect for the opinion of their own citizens. Here we are suffering the consequences of a totally failed foreign workers program implemented and promoted by the conservatives which was designed by the corporations so that they could take advantage of desperate foreign workers who they could pay 15% less BY LAW. I find this outrageous. Left or right it does not matter, this is simply human exploitation, PERIOD. Again this law was designed by lawyers with, no doubts, a strange concept of fairness. We Canadians accept all of this as the ‘Price of doing business’.

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