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Govt Threatens Tar Sands Activists with Anti-Terror Laws

by Chris Arsenault

VANCOUVER - The provincial government in Alberta, Canada is threatening to unleash its counterterrorism plan if activists continue using civil disobedience to protest the tar sands, Canada's fastest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

On July 25th, 2008 eleven Greenpeace activists entered Syncrude’s Aurora tar sands operation and hung this banner to protest the development of this toxic practice. he provincial government in Alberta, Canada is threatening to unleash its counterterrorism plan if activists continue using civil disobedience to protest the tar sands, Canada's fastest source of greenhouse gas emissions. (Image: Courtesy Greenpeace) In recent weeks, Greenpeace has staged three daring protests inside tar sands mines, temporarily shutting down parts of the world's largest energy project. On Oct. 3 and 4, activists blocked construction of an upgrader needed to refine heavy tar sands oil, belonging to Shell in Ft. Saskatchewan, Alberta.

Civil disobedience from Greenpeace, leading to 37 arrests, has enraged Alberta's conservative government. "We're coddling people who are breaking the law," complained Premier Ed Stelmach during a media scrum in early October.

"Premier Stelmach's public suggestion that he will use the 'force of the law to deal with these people' confirms his lack of knowledge of the limits of his authority and the clear rule that our system of justice cannot be interfered with or manipulated for political reasons," responded Brian Beresh, the defence lawyer representing arrested activists, at a news conference in Edmonton.

Legal scholars, including University of Alberta law professor Sanjiv Anand and Tom Engel of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, have criticized the provincial government for attempting to politicize legal proceedings.

"We're going to be working very closely with industry and our solicitor general will be reviewing all of the guidelines we have in place," said a visibly irritated Premier Stelmach in early October.

Fred Lindsay, the solicitor general, went a step further, suggesting the province might use its counterterrorism plan against future protests.

"I think there is an agenda in linking Greenpeace to concerns about terrorism," Bruce Cox, the executive director of Greenpeace Canada, told IPS. Cox is being charged with mischief and faces a fine of more than 5,000 dollars for his participation in the civil disobedience.

The recent campaign began on Sep. 15, when 25 Greenpeace activists snuck into Shell's Albian sands mine in northern Alberta, chaining themselves to a three-story high dump truck and hanging huge banners to coincide with meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington.

Shell officials temporarily shut down the site. Shell was targeted again in early October at its Ft. Saskatchewan upgrader.

On Sep. 30, activists canoed down the Athabasca River into a tar sands facility operated by Suncor. They blocked a conveyor belt which moves heavy oil, causing a temporary shutdown of Canada's second largest oil sands mine. Suncor didn't respond to repeated requests for comment from IPS.

Canada's tar sands will singlehandedly produce more greenhouse gas emissions than Denmark, Ireland, Austria or Portugal by 2020 if the development continues expanding at its current rate, according to a recent report written by award-winning business reporter Andrew Nikiforuk. The tar sands already spew more greenhouse gas emissions than Estonia or Lithuania.

"Companies in the tar sands are secondary to our goal. Our message was aimed at international leaders, along with the prime minister in Canada," Cox told IPS.

"We are going to continue to get our message out to an international audience, with a focus now on [climate change negotiations in] Copenhagen in mid-December," he said.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made headlines across Canada in September when he stated that the tar sands should be shut down.

While recent civil disobedience raises the stakes in Alberta itself, the main battles surrounding the tar sands will be fought during international forums like Copenhagen and in Washington, as U.S. consumers receive the lion's share of tar sands imports.

California and Oregon have already passed low carbon fuel standard laws, which effectively prohibit the importation of tar sands oil. That worries some energy lobbyists in the U.S.

"Our economy is completely dependent on fossil fuels," said Michael Whatley from the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a pro-tar sands lobby group representing the transportation industry and oil producers based in Houston, Texas.

"If you start taking oil based products off the table before alternatives are ready for prime time, then you are going to have catastrophic impacts for the economy," Whately told IPS.

The CEA has been meeting with U.S. politicians, lobbying against low carbon fuel standards and writing op-eds in support of the tar sands.

"Does Canadian oil have more carbon in it than oil from the Middle East? No. Does gasoline derived from Canadian oil emit more carbon dioxide than gasoline from Middle East oil? Nope." wrote David Holt, the executive director of CEA, in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner.

These numbers contradict the standard scientific consensus and they are at odds with what tar sands companies themselves are saying. Shell, for example, says burning tar sands oil creates five to 15 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude.

Michael Whatley couldn't directly comment on how CEA came to such conclusions or why their numbers vastly differ from basic scientific norms for calibrating emissions. The pro-tar sands lobbyist believes the environmental movement has had "a tremendous head-start" in the battle for hearts and minds but he is feeling "very upbeat" from talking to U.S. consumers and politicians about the alleged benefits of tar sands crude.

Back in Alberta, the provincial government's approach to recent civil disobedience has rattled legal scholars, but Greenpeace's David Cox isn't particularly surprised. "They [Alberta's government] are unflinching boosters for dirty tar sands oil, they invest tax dollars in selling it worldwide," said Cox.

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