By Mike Townsley, Head of News - Greenpeace International

“I have seen the future and it is murder,” lamented Leonard Cohen on my iPod as I arrived in Fort McMurray airport, Alberta, Canada. The oil man’s airport of choice for access to the vast dirty oil Tar Sands development: the biggest industrial development in the world and the largest capital investment project in history and, arguably, the stupidest.

Now I don’t really like flying, a classic case of fear of falling - or, to be more precise, landing - and like everyone else the bigger the plane, the less white-knuckled and apprehensive I am. So, we land safely, a small group of Greenpeace activists from around the world, and walk to a helicopter hangar, from which we will embark on a ninety minute aerial tour of what was once pristine boreal forest. At first, all is fine: the slightly scruffy looking Boreal forest seems to stretch forever, cut in two by one of the world’s largest waterways, the Athabasca River. But, after about ten minutes, the forest ends abruptly and in a straight line. The tree-lined horizon gives way to smokestacks, fumes, and vast lakes filled with the toxic water by-product of pushing and processing the bitumen out of the soil. So large are these lakes that they can be seen from space. Canada’s new not-so-great lakes! The earth is broken and scared on a scale that has to be seen to be believed.


There is a reason why an oil reserve so large has been left largely untapped until the last few years – although the industry has been experimenting for decades – it is extremely expensive to first clear the trees, and dig out several metres of soil to be processed to remove the bitumen and then process the bitumen into synthetic crude oil. A second, more recent technique is also being deployed, called in-situ. I forget my fear of flying, and remember my fear of climate change, unchecked industrial development and love of the wilderness.

Countless developments range below. Mike Hudema, of Greenpeace Canada, who is based in Alberta, gives us a commentary on what we can see: from the giant yellow rectangles of sulphur as big as the base of the pyramids to the man-made lakes that are earthen-walled, and a roll call of who’s who in the global oil industry. Despite claims to the contrary, Mike tells us how the toxic lakes leak and leach a deadly cocktail of process chemicals into the groundwater

and the river system. From 3000ft, you can actually see the sulphur snake away from the giant mounds.


From Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of Greenpeace and the Lubicon First Nation, we hear how the runaway pace of tar sands development is displacing her community and destroying the traditional way of life of many First Nations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. We hear of increased cancer rates, reduced wildlife and fish stocks and the devastating social impacts related to the invasion of the oil industry.

Greenpeace is running an active campaign against the Tar Sands. Our activists have been into the site on several occasions to protest the many illegal activities and are actively working in the area to warn of the dangers. But this is an international problem, as you can imagine an oil reserve of this size might be, and demands an international solution and campaign.

Just after I left Canada, Melina, along with others from Alberta, arrived in Norway to take part in a lobby trip to persuade majority-state-owned oil company StatoilHydro to withdraw its role in exploiting the tar sands. They were there to support a Greenpeace motion at the company’s AGM on 19 May, calling for it to pull out of the tar sands. While ultimately and narrowly unsuccessful, they made good headway.

Five major investors have been putting pressure on Statoil to withdraw from the tar sands: Danske Bank has expressed its opposition to the contentious project; DnBNOR, Norway’s largest bank, held meetings to discuss whether continued involvement in the Alberta tar sands is a sound investment; Folksam, a Swedish insurance company, KPA, a Swedish pension fund and the 7th AP fund, Sweden’s largest pension fund, voted in favour of the motion by Greenpeace.

Finally, earlier this year, the respected science journal Nature published a paper showing that if we are going to have a chance of averting runaway climate change by keeping global temperature rise below 2°C then we cannot afford to burn more than one quarter of the world’s known economically-recoverable fossil fuel reserves: that does not include tar sands. I have seen the future in which the fossil fuel industry goes unchallenged and climate change unchecked. I have seen the future and it is Tar Sands.

Learn more and help us spread the word here.