Tag Archive | fossil fuels

A Pilgrimage to the Tar Sands

Guest blog by Mary Pendergast, RSM

“The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal.  The imposition of a dominant life-style linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as altering ecosystems.”
#145  Laudato Si’

In July, I had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage, a meaningful journey to a sacred place, in order to deepen my life’s purpose: to do the Great Work of our times. (Thomas Berry urged all of us over 30 years ago to engage in the Great Work of bringing forth a mutually enhancing Earth/human relationship.) Athabasca falls 1Sister Maureen Wild, SC, and I followed Athabasca River (in western Canada) from its source in the Columbian ice fields. We saw her acquire strength and power and tumble into the Athabasca Falls in Jasper  National Park. We observed some of the places where she had carved rock with torrents and rivulets a long time and where she flowed lazily through quiet towns sculpting a path north.  The Athabasca has one mission, to bless all life in its path with pure glacial water; but to do it she has to pass through hell.  She does not come out unscathed.

Maureen and I tailed the river to Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada where she is used by the tar sands industry for its mining operation in the world’s last remaining “oil” field.  Second only to Saudi Arabia, the region is said to contain up to 2.5 trillion barrels of “oil,” but to get at it entails destroying an ecosystem and an indigenous way of life. The number one market for bitumen is the United States. 

To extract a barrel of bitumen requires the excavation of two tons of Earth and sand and three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca.  That water use is equivalent to the water use of a city of two million people for a year!  Much of the water gets “recycled” in tailings ponds, used to settle out solids in the oil, water, chemical mix. The ponds are covered with the sheen of oil, so small cannons boom to keep birds from landing, 24 hours a day.  

If the “oil” is too deep to mine, the industry also uses another method of extraction called in situ.  It is a method that steams out the bitumen, but it burns natural gas to boil the water into steam.  Estimated use of natural gas in boiling water — enough to heat six million North American homes every day!   

Tar Sands mineIf this is beginning to sound like an energy intensive, unsustainable method to obtain bitumen which requires even more diluting and refining to become something that will actually flow through a pipeline, I think you are on to something!  Worst of all, each barrel of bitumen produces three times the greenhouse gas as conventional oil, putting us in the ever deepening hole of global emissions fueling climate change.

Maureen has First Nation elder friends in Fort McKay, Celia and Ed Harpe, who live just down river from the industry. They invited us to a dinner of moose meat and new potatoes.  They shared stories of their traditional way of life.  They no longer drink the water from the Athabasca, nor do they eat her fish which have been documented to have tumors, cancers and lesions, nor do they swim in the river or pick the berries and herbs growing wild.  They say that the wildlife has disappeared along with the forest and I wonder what the moose and the beaver are drinking wherever they are?  

Celia  is an outspoken critic of the Tar Sands industry. She says there have been no frogs on the river for 40 years. Canaries in the proverbial coal mine, they cannot survive in a toxic environment.  Tar Sands getty images 2The people, too, have come down with asthma and lupus and cancers I couldn’t even pronounce.  Celia said every family had someone who was sick, or already dead including her own. Her husband Ed has lung cancer. Her sister Dorothy died of lupus. Celia’s grandson, 32, was recently killed in an industry accident. We happened to be there for his memorial service.

 A way of life has been supplanted by an industry.  A people’s culture and health have been compromised. The people, caribou, bear, moose, fish and owl have to deal with a brew of heavy metals including arsenic, thallium and mercury in the Athabasca, while she continues her journey to the Arctic Ocean forever changed. 

The words of Thomas Berry ring as true as ever:

We might summarize our present human situation by the simple statement: that in the 20th century, the glory of the human has become the desolation of the Earth and now the desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of the human.

Mary at Climate MarchMary Pendergast, RSM has been Director of Ecology for the Sisters of Mercy Northeast since 2009. She is also involved with Mercy Ecology, Inc. A Montessori teacher for many years and singer with Carolyn McDade, she studied the New Story with Miriam MacGillis, OP at Genesis Farm. For more information and photos of Mary and her pilgrimage: www.riverpilgrims.net. Contact: mpendergast@mercyne.org



Readers who believe that all of life is interconnected, and that God has been living and acting in planet Earth throughout its 4½-billion-year story, are highly motivated to respond to the March 31, 2014
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Report by the
world’s international climate experts. (Summary Report: http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf The Chinese proverb’s warning was never more needed: Unless we change our direction, we’ll end up where we’re going.

IPCC Report 

The peril is even more certain, and more frightening, than past IPCC assessments stated. The Summary begins starkly: Human interference with the climate system is occurring, and climate change poses risks for human and natural systems. Climate extremes are unequivocally caused by human activity. 

Risks, benefits, and outcomes of adaptation are predicted for the near-term and longer-term. Statements are labeled by authors’ confidence degree: very high, high, medium, or low.  The list of  very high confidence  risks is staggering. All risks, and solutions, involve emission levels. Greenhouse gas emissions will have to drop by 40-70% by 2050.

Earth has had 5 extinctions. None had human causation, obviously. No human should want to be responsible for #6 —  though many factors indicate we are already causing it. 

IPCC’s Reasons for Hope

But it is not too late to keep the global temperature at a manageable level — if the world embarks quickly on an intense effort over the next 15 years.

10-05-2012zClimate change can be addressed without affecting living standards, they report, and with only a tiny reduction in economic growth. The IPCC report concludes that diverting hundred of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. This investment would save the billions needed to repair losses from extreme climate events. 

In addition, it would prevent deaths and destruction from future weather extremes. It would provide   global economic opportunity we can seize today,  Sec. of State John Kerry said. So many of the technologies that will help us fight climate change are far cheaper, more readily available, and better performing than they were when the last IPCC assessment was released less than a decade ago, Kerry said. And cleaner air and fewer climate calamities would have positive effects for, e.g., health, job creation, and food production.

The report is clear: the more you wait, the more it will cost [and] the more difficult it will become,  said EU commissioner Connie Hedegaard. 

What’s Needed?

Rapid action can limit global warming to 2˚C, the internationally agreed safe limit, if low-carbon energy triples or opportunity-costquadruples by 2050. Companies and individuals must rapidly wean themselves off coal, gas and oil and fund low-carbon growth in poorer countries. Along with measures that cut energy waste, renewable energy – such as wind, hydropower and solar – is viewed most favorably by the report as a result of its falling costs and large-scale deployment in recent years.

Readers already committed to reducing fossil fuel emissions that exacerbate climate change are often puzzled by climate deniers and those who continue to spew greenhouse gases that clog our atmosphere. Will this report wake us all up to the immanent danger and changes that must be made immediately?

Action Suggestions

Here are some of many actions that can be taken to change attitudes and atmosphere. Trust that still, small voice that says: This might work and I’ll try it.  (Diane Mariechild)

– Appreciate the gift of creation and the billions of years of evolution. Don’t do anything, just stand there! (David S. Toolan, SJ) Fall in love with creation! Be awed by what has evolved and what we and future generations could lose.

– Imagine/ Vision: How old will your children/ grandchildren be in 2029? Picture the planet you want them to enjoy. We cannot choose whether or not to create the future; we can only choose whether or not to create the future we want for them.

– What would you say to parents who continued to give their children food that already makes them sick and that 97% of reputable food experts judge to be toxic? What could you say to climate deniers you know?

– Be able to explain the climate change/fracking connections (e.g. https://ecospiritualityresources.com/media; Triple Divide, from Public Herald; Gaslands 2).

– Deepen empathy for those who have invested in land and machinery, lobbying and media ads  for mining fossil fuels. It won’t be easy for them to change. Send strong, loving energy to support their, and its, “conversion.” Pray for Mother Earth’s healing.

– Lobby and join groups acting to reduce use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) locally and nationally (e.g., 350.org, various frack-free and Keystone XL organizations).

– Transition to renewable energy sources for home and business (e.g., Credo: You can switch right now to 100% clean energy from Ethical Electric, America’s Progressive Energy Company.)

– Support expansion of renewable energy locally and nationally.

– Lobby for reduction of military budgets and for applying those massive sums for renewable energy. (According to TIME, April 28, 2014, the U.S. defense spending totals $640 billion, $452 billion more than #2 defense spender, China.)

– Encourage institutions to divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewables. (Archbishop  Desmond Tutu advocates an anti-apartheid-type campaign against fossil-fuel companies, which he blames for the  injustice  of climate change.)

– Reduce driving, but if necessary, drive no faster than 55 – 60 MPH. This results in notable reduction of fuel and of pollution — and it saves money at the pump.


All ministry will be futile if — through our ignorance, indifference, or refusal to act — Earth’s ecosystems are destroyed. Nobody makes a greater mistake than those who do nothing because they could only do a little!