Just north of Seattle, in Washington state, sits the small city of Bellingham. The sleepy city of 76,000 doesn’t seem like the kind of place to start a revolution, but the city council has fired the first governmental shot at the Alberta Tar Sands. On Monday June 7, 2010, by a vote of 7-0, the council voted to reconsider what sort of fuel Bellingham buys for its fleet vehicles, a motion that specifically indicted “high carbon fuels such as those derived from the Canadian Tar Sands.”
The city is locked into a supply contract with its current supplier until 2015, so the vote is largely symbolic. However, the city council hopes that this will send a strong message to oil companies to reconsider the use of high-carbon fuels.
Oil derived from tar sands sources uses up to three times the amount of energy required to extract conventional oil. The tar sands are the single largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and the destruction and pollution that result from the extraction and processing of the ultra-heavy oil are widespread in the region around the oil sands.
The city of Bellingham is not alone in its protests against the Alberta Oil Sands, with investors such as Statioil in Norway and Denmark’s Danske Bank questioning whether they should be involved on ethical, rather than business, grounds. Other companies, like Whole Foods and Lush cosmetics, are actively moving to eliminate tar sands-based oil from their fleets and supply chains as protests against the high carbon costs of unconventional oil. Still others have objected by questioning whether the oil sands are a sound investment.
By virtue of being located in a remote region of Northern Alberta, the oil sands projects largely escaped public scrutiny. However, as these projects grow they have attracted much attention. David Suzuki, the most trusted person in Canada, has come out against these projects, and Greenpeace has mounted several very public protests against them. People are finally beginning to count the costs of these projects.
As the true costs of tar sands oil extraction becomes more pronounced, many more communities and corporations will likely follow the lead of the Bellingham city council and it’s corporate predecessors. Even just raising questions about the costs of the process, and the costs to the environment, is useful on a merely informative basis. However, if everyone gets in the habit of asking questions, perhaps someday someone from an oil corporation may start providing answers.