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Andrew NikiforukFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canada has no cohesive energy policy. Nor does it have a cohesive environmental policy. Put the two together and you get the tar sands of Alberta, in all their hideous glory.

Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent lays bare the idiocy of this malignant neglect. The book is, in essence, a revolting, blush-making case for Canada to develop integrated energy and environmental regulation suitable for the post-carbon age. And then swiftly enforce it.

The Alberta tar sands - which boosters like to reposition as the Alberta oil sands because that makes them sound a little cleaner - are Canada's dirty little secret. They are the world's largest energy project, largest construction project and largest capital project, so large that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has likened them to the building of the Egyptian Pyramids or the Great Wall of China.

But their impact on the planet is on a scale that far outpaces those other human-built wonders of the world. And what does it leave? The monument to a thriving culture? No. Open-pit mines. Tailing ponds full of weeping toxic sludge. Masses of local pollution. And enough climate- and ocean-destroying carbon dioxide to make it a world-class catastrophe.

As Nikiforuk shows all too clearly, the massive and growing project gulps fresh water, destroys valuable boreal forest, poisons air, water and soil and uses up a substantial portion of the energy it produces. To wit (using figures Nikiforuk says are conservative): To make one barrel of bitumen, the muck that can eventually be processed into synthetic crude oil, takes an average of three barrels of fresh water and two tons of sand.

That same barrel produces at least 1.3 barrels of fine-tailings toxic waste and an ounce of acid-rain-producing sulphur dioxide. Then it uses up 1,400 cubic feet of natural gas in the upgrading, or a third of the amount of energy the barrel will eventually produce. By the time the sludge is a barrel of processed synthetic crude, it has produced 187 pounds of carbon dioxide, three times as much greenhouse gas as a traditional barrel of oil. And that's before it's burned.

It's a bad deal for the local environment. It's a rotten deal for taxpayers and citizens. The ratcheting up of the atmosphere's carbon dioxide concentrations - both in the natural gas used to extract the tarry sludge and in the destruction of carbon-storing forests and bogs - makes it unconscionable in the larger arena of planetary health. The tar sands are Canada's largest (and growing) source of carbon dioxide.

That they exist at all is a scandal. That they are growing so quickly is nothing short of a cynical and dangerous gamble. Nikiforuk shows, for example, in the sickening chapter on money, that the government subsidies to the tar sands mess - largely in the area of a dirt-cheap royalties structure - would go a long way toward financing clean and renewable energy, so badly needed in this era of dangerous climate and ocean change.

The $200-billion in international money that has gone so far in building up the infrastructure in the tar sands could have gone for a cleaner solution. The volumes of relatively clean-burning natural gas used to extract the filthy synthetic crude could be used as fuel to heat homes. There's even talk now of using nuclear energy - which at least has the merit of not producing much carbon dioxide - to power the tar sands. It's utter folly.

But why would human civilization choose to use clean energy to produce dirty? It's a canonical example of externalizing the true costs of investment, of failing to insert the price of producing something into its retail cost. It is a failure of capitalism, a financial dodge-and-weave gambit that leaves civilization as a whole holding the bag.

So where does the blame lie? I began to wonder, as I immersed myself in the Alice-in-Wonderland world Nikiforuk describes, whether the tar sands could have happened anywhere but in Alberta. That province was already in thrall to the oil and gas companies and had a low level of public discourse when the tar sands really began to explode.

When I lived there for six years, until 2000, as a national correspondent for The Globe and Mail, I was continually struck by the opaque nature of its politics and of decision-making, of the steel walls and bitter retributions set up to discourage questioning from media or citizens.

And could the tar sands have happened without a willing federal government, of whatever stripe? Not a chance. The federal government is proud of the project.

Think of it this way: If the tar sands project were happening in China, with all the toxic waste, greenhouse gas pollution, environmental destruction and social havoc that is happening in Canada, we in the West would use it as stick to beat the Chinese government with. It would stand as the metaphor of a rapacious government gone badly wrong.

In the end, it may fall to U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, who is visiting Canada soon after his inauguration so he can have a chat about, guess what, energy and environment, to point out the obvious: Canada could be a clean-energy powerhouse for the modern world, if only it would get its policy house in order. The tar sands - in their present form - are unlikely to be part of the recipe.

Alanna Mitchell is the author of two books on the global environment. The second, Sea Sick, will be published in Canada in March.

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