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tar sands[Excerpt] In 1986, the then-editor of The New Republic, Michael Kinsley, famously asked whether anyone could find a headline more boring than “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative,” which had recently appeared on the Timesop-ed page. The jibe was really a backhanded compliment, of course—Canada’s virtue was so automatic it could just be assumed. It was big news in Canada when, in 2008, the country slipped from the top-ten list of the world’s most peaceful countries (all the way to eleventh). By this year, it was back in eighth, 74 places above the U.S. and, when liberals in the U.S. feel despairing, what dominates their fantasy life but “moving to Canada”?
 
And yet, today, you could make an argument that Canada has actually become one of the earth’s more irresponsible nations—namely, when it comes to the environment. Indeed, you could argue that the world would be better off if the government in Ottawa was replaced by, say, the one in Brasilia, which has made a far better show of attending to the planet’s welfare. It’s a tale of physics, chemistry, and most of all economics, and it all starts in the western province of Alberta.
 
THE PROVINCE’S TAR sands cover an area larger than the United Kingdom and contain most of the world’s supply of bitumen, a particularly sticky form of petroleum that must be heated or diluted before it can be pumped. Because it’s so unwieldy, it’s only been in recent years that large-scale development of the tar sands have taken place. The steep rise in global oil prices has set off a boom in the region, with all that naturally follows (prostitutes have reported incomes as high as $15,000 a week).
 
But this is a boom unlike others. It’s the first huge oil play of the global-warming era, the first time we’ve dangerously stepped onto new turf, even though we understand the stakes...
 

Originally published June 27, 2011 at The New Republic

Tar sands image via howlcollective/flicr.

 

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