TEDxVictoria

Garth Lenz: The true cost of oil

Filmed:

What does environmental devastation actually look like? At TEDxVictoria, photographer Garth Lenz shares shocking photos of the Alberta Tar Sands mining project -- and the beautiful (and vital) ecosystems under threat. (Filmed at TEDxVictoria.)

- Photographer
Garth Lenz’ touring exhibition, “The True Cost of Oil”, has played a major part in the fight against Alberta Tar Sands Mining. Full bio

The world's largest and most devastating
00:05
environmental and industrial project
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is situated in the heart
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of the largest and most intact forest in the world,
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Canada's boreal forest.
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It stretches right across northern Canada, in Labrador,
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it's home to the largest remaining wild caribou herd
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in the world, the George River caribou herd,
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numbering approximately 400,000 animals.
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Unfortunately, when I was there I couldn't find one of them,
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but you have the antlers as proof.
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All across the boreal, we're blessed with this
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incredible abundance of wetlands.
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Wetlands globally are one of the most endangered ecosystems.
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They're absolutely critical ecosystems,
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they clean air, they clean water,
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they sequester large amounts of greenhouse gases,
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and they're home to a huge diversity of species.
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In the boreal, they are also the home where
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almost 50 percent of the 800 bird species
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found in North America migrate north to breed and raise their young.
00:59
In Ontario, the boreal marches down south
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to the north shore of Lake Superior.
01:08
And these incredibly beautiful boreal forests
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were the inspiration for some of the most famous art
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in Canadian history, the Group of Seven were very inspired
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by this landscape,
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and so the boreal is not just a really key part of our
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natural heritage,
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but also an important part of our cultural heritage.
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In Manitoba, this is an image from the east side of Lake Winnipeg,
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and this is the home of the newly designated
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UNESCO Cultural Heritage site.
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In Saskatchewan, as across all of the boreal,
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home to some of our most famous rivers,
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an incredible network of rivers and lakes
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that every school-age child learns about,
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the Peace, the Athabasca, the Churchill here, the Mackenzie,
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and these networks were the historical routes
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for the voyageur and the coureur des bois,
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the first non-Aboriginal explorers of northern Canada
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that, taking from the First Nations people,
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used canoes and paddled to explore
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for a trade route, a Northwest Passage for the fur trade.
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In the North, the boreal is bordered by the tundra,
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and just below that, in Yukon,
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we have this incredible valley, the Tombstone Valley.
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And the Tombstone Valley is home to the Porcupine caribou herd.
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Now you've probably heard about the Porcupine caribou herd
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in the context of its breeding ground
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in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
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Well, the wintering ground is also critical
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and it also is not protected,
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and is potentially, could be potentially, exploited
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for gas and mineral rights.
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The western border of the boreal in British Columbia
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is marked by the Coast Mountains,
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and on the other side of those mountains
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is the greatest remaining temperate rainforest in the world,
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the Great Bear Rainforest,
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and we'll discuss that in a few minutes in a bit more detail.
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All across the boreal, it's home for a huge
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incredible range of indigenous peoples,
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and a rich and varied culture.
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And I think that one of the reasons why
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so many of these groups have retained a link to the past,
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know their native languages,
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the songs, the dances, the traditions,
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I think part of that reason is because of the remoteness,
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the span and the wilderness
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of this almost 95 percent intact ecosystem.
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And I think particularly now,
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as we see ourselves in a time of environmental crisis,
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we can learn so much from these people
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who have lived so sustainably in this ecosystem
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for over 10,000 years.
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In the heart of this ecosystem is the very antithesis
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of all of these values that we've been talking about,
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and I think these are some of the core values
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that make us proud to be Canadians.
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This is the Alberta tar sands,
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the largest oil reserves on the planet
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outside of Saudi Arabia.
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Trapped underneath the boreal forest
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and wetlands of northern Alberta
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are these vast reserves of this sticky, tar-like bitumen.
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And the mining and the exploitation of that
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is creating devastation on a scale that the planet has never seen before.
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I want to try to convey some sort of a sense of the size of this.
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If you look at that truck there,
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it is the largest truck of its kind of the planet.
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It is a 400-ton-capacity dump truck
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and its dimensions are 45 feet long
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by 35 feet wide and 25 feet high.
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If I stand beside that truck,
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my head comes to around the bottom
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of the yellow part of that hubcap.
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Within the dimensions of that truck,
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you could build a 3,000-square-foot two-story home
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quite easily. I did the math.
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So instead of thinking of that as a truck,
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think of that as a 3,000-square-foot home.
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That's not a bad size home.
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And line those trucks/homes back and forth
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across there from the bottom
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all the way to the top.
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And then think of how large that very small section of one mine is.
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Now, you can apply that same kind of thinking
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here as well.
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Now, here you see -- of course, as you go further on,
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these trucks become like a pixel.
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Again, imagine those all back and forth there.
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How large is that one portion of a mine?
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That would be a huge, vast metropolitan area,
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probably much larger than the city of Victoria.
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And this is just one of a number of mines,
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10 mines so far right now.
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This is one section of one mining complex,
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and there are about another 40 or 50 in the approval process.
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No tar sands mine has actually ever been denied approval,
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so it is essentially a rubber stamp.
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The other method of extraction is what's called the in-situ.
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And here, massive amounts of water
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are super-heated and pumped through the ground,
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through these vasts networks of pipelines,
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seismic lines, drill paths, compressor stations.
06:00
And even though this looks maybe not quite as repugnant
06:04
as the mines, it's even more damaging in some ways.
06:06
It impacts and fragments a larger part of the wilderness,
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where there is 90 percent reduction of key species,
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like woodland caribou and grizzly bears,
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and it consumes even more energy, more water,
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and produces at least as much greenhouse gas.
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So these in-situ developments are at least as
06:26
ecologically damaging as the mines.
06:29
The oil produced from either method
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produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other oil.
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This is one of the reasons why it's called
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the world's dirtiest oil.
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It's also one of the reasons why it is
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the largest and fastest-growing single source
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of carbon in Canada,
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and it is also a reason why Canada is now number three
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in terms of producing carbon per person.
06:56
The tailings ponds are the largest toxic impoundments on the planet.
07:01
Oil sands -- or rather I should say tar sands --
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"oil sands" is a P.R.-created term
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so that the oil companies wouldn't be trying to promote
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something that sounds like a sticky tar-like substance
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that's the world's dirtiest oil.
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So they decided to call it oil sands.
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The tar sands consume more water than any other oil process,
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three to five barrels of water are taken, polluted
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and then returned into tailings ponds,
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the largest toxic impoundments on the planet.
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SemCrude, just one of the licensees,
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in just one of their tailings ponds,
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dumps 250,000 tons of this toxic gunk every single day.
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That's creating the largest toxic impoundments
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in the history of the planet.
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So far, this is enough toxin
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to cover the face of Lake Eerie a foot deep.
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And the tailings ponds range in size up to 9,000 acres.
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That's two-thirds the size of the entire island of Manhattan.
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That's like from Wall Street at the southern edge of Manhattan
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up to maybe 120th Street.
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So this is an absolutely --
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this is one of the larger tailings ponds.
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This might be, what? I don't know, half the size of Manhattan.
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And you can see in the context,
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it's just a relatively small section
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of one of 10 mining complexes and another 40 to 50
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on stream to be approved soon.
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And of course, these tailings ponds --
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well, you can't see many ponds from outer space
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and you can see these, so maybe we should stop calling them ponds --
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these massive toxic wastelands are built
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unlined and on the banks of the Athabasca River.
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And the Athabasca River drains downstream
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to a range of Aboriginal communities.
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In Fort Chippewa, the 800 people there,
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are finding toxins in the food chain,
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this has been scientifically proven.
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The tar sands toxins are in the food chain,
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and this is causing cancer rates
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up to 10 times what they are in the rest of Canada.
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In spite of that, people have to live,
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have to eat this food in order to survive.
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The incredibly high price
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of flying food into these remote Northern Aboriginal communities
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and the high rate of unemployment
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makes this an absolute necessity for survival.
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And not that many years ago, I was lent a boat by a First Nations man.
09:18
And he said, "When you go out on the river,
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do not under any circumstances eat the fish.
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It's carcinogenic."
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And yet, on the front porch of that man's cabin,
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I saw four fish. He had to feed his family to survive.
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And as a parent, I just can't imagine what that does to your soul.
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And that's what we're doing.
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The boreal forest is also
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perhaps our best defense against global warming and climate change.
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The boreal forest sequesters more carbon
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than any other terrestrial ecosystem.
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And this is absolutely key.
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So what we're doing is,
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we're taking the most concentrated greenhouse gas sink,
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twice as much greenhouse gases are sequestered in
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the boreal per acre than the tropical rainforests.
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And what we're doing is we're destroying
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this carbon sink, turning it into a carbon bomb.
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And we're replacing that with the largest
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industrial project in the history of the world,
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which is producing the most high-carbon
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greenhouse gas emitting oil in the world.
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And we're doing this on the second largest
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oil reserves on the planet.
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This is one of the reasons why Canada,
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originally a climate change hero --
10:43
we were one of the first signatories of the Kyoto Accord.
10:44
Now we're the country that has full-time lobbyists
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in the European Union and Washington, D.C.
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threatening trade wars when these countries
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talk about wanting to bring in positive legislation
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to limit the import of high-carbon fuels,
11:00
of greenhouse gas emissions, anything like this,
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at international conferences,
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whether they're in Copenhagen or Cancun,
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international conferences on climate change,
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we're the country that gets the dinosaur award
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every single day as being the biggest obstacle
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to progress on this issue.
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Just 70 miles downstream
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is the world's largest freshwater delta,
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the Peace-Athabasca Delta,
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the only one at the juncture of all four migratory flyways.
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This is a globally significant wetland,
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perhaps the greatest on the planet.
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Incredible habitat for half the bird species
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you find in North America, migrating here.
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And also the last refuge for the largest herd of wild bison,
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and also, of course, critical habitat for another whole range of other species.
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But it too is being threatened by the massive amount
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of water being drawn from the Athabasca,
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which feeds these wetlands,
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and also the incredible toxic burden
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of the largest toxic unlined impoundments on the planet,
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which are leaching in to the food chain
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for all the species downstream.
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So as bad as all that is, things are going to get
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much worse, much, much worse.
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This is the infrastructure as we see it about now.
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This is what's planned for 2015.
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And you can see here the Keystone Pipeline,
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which would take tar sands raw down to the Gulf Coast,
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punching a pipeline through the heart,
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the agricultural heart of North America, of the United States,
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and securing the contract with the dirtiest fuel in the world
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by consumption of the United States,
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and promoting a huge disincentive
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to a sustainable clean energy future for America.
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Here you see the route down the Mackenzie Valley.
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This would put a pipeline to take natural gas
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from the Beaufort Sea through the heart
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of the third largest watershed basin in the world,
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and the only one which is 95 percent intact.
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And building a pipeline with an industrial highway
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would change forever this incredible wilderness,
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which is a true rarity on the planet today.
13:14
So the Great Bear Rainforest is just over
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the hill there, within a few miles we go from these
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dry boreal forests of 100-year-old trees,
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maybe 10 inches across,
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and soon we're in the coastal temperate rainforest,
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rain-drenched, 1,000-year-old trees,
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20 feet across, a completely different ecosystem.
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And the Great Bear Rainforest is generally considered
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to be the largest coastal temperate rainforest
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ecosystem in the world.
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Some of the greatest densities of,
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some of the most iconic and threatened species on the planet,
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and yet there's a proposal, of course, to build a pipeline
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to take huge tankers, 10 times the size of the Exxon Valdez,
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through some of the most difficult to navigate waters in the world,
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where only just a few years ago,
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a B.C. ferry ran aground.
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When one of these tar sands tankers,
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carrying the dirtiest oil, 10 times as much as the Exxon Valdez,
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eventually hits a rock and goes down,
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we're going to have one of the worst ecological disasters
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this planet has ever seen.
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And here we have the plan out to 2030.
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What they're proposing is an almost four-times increase in production,
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and that would industrialize an area the size of Florida.
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In doing so, we'll be removing
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a large part of our greatest carbon sink
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and replacing it with the most high greenhouse gas
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emission oil in the future.
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The world does not need any more tar mines.
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The world does not need any more pipelines
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to wed our addiction to fossil fuels.
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And the world certainly does not need
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the largest toxic impoundments to grow and multiply
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and further threaten the downstream communities.
15:01
And let's face it, we all live downstream
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in an era of global warming and climate change.
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What we need, is we all need to act
15:09
to ensure that Canada respects
15:12
the massive amounts of freshwater
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that we hold in this country.
15:17
We need to ensure that these wetlands and forests
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that are our best and greatest and most critical
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defense against global warming are protected,
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and we are not releasing that carbon bomb into the atmosphere.
15:27
And we need to all gather together
15:32
and say no to the tar sands.
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And we can do that. There is a huge network
15:37
all over the world fighting to stop this project.
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And I quite simply think that this is not
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something that should be decided just in Canada.
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Everyone in this room, everyone across Canada,
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everyone listening to this presentation has a role to play
15:51
and, I think, a responsibility.
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Because what we do here
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is going to change our history,
15:58
it's going to color our possibility to survive,
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and for our children to survive
16:05
and have a rich future.
16:06
We have an incredible gift in the boreal,
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an incredible opportunity to preserve
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our best defense against global warming,
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but we could let that slip away.
16:17
The tar sands could threaten
16:20
not just a large section of the boreal.
16:22
It compromises the life and the health
16:24
of some of our most underprivileged and vulnerable people,
16:27
the Aboriginal communities that have so much to teach us.
16:31
It could destroy the Athabasca Delta,
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the largest and possibly greatest freshwater delta in the planet.
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It could destroy the Great Bear Rainforest,
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the largest temperate rainforest in the world.
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And it could have huge impacts
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on the future of the agricultural heartland of North America.
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I hope that you will all, if you've been moved by this presentation,
16:56
join with the growing international community
16:58
to get Canada to step up to its responsibilities,
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to convince Canada to go back to being a climate change champion
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instead of a climate change villain,
17:09
and to say no to the tar sands,
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and yes to a clean energy future for all.
17:13
Thank you so much.
17:16
(Applause)
17:17
Translated by Morton Bast
Reviewed by Thu-Huong Ha

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About the Speaker:

Garth Lenz - Photographer
Garth Lenz’ touring exhibition, “The True Cost of Oil”, has played a major part in the fight against Alberta Tar Sands Mining.

Why you should listen

Garth Lenz’s photographs capture the detailed reality of what happens when a pristine landscape is confronted by an industrial project. His work as a photojournalist has won him top awards at Pris de la Photographie Paris and the International Photography Awards. He is also a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. His solo exhibition featuring the Alberta Tar Sands, “The True Cost of Oil” premiered in 2011.