Pop quiz: After Saudi Arabia, which country has the most proven oil reserves? Wrong. Not only wrong, but wrong part of the world. Unless you are among the .00001 percent who guessed Canada — in which case, congratulations!

Canada has 179 billion barrels of proven “oil” reserves. I use quotes because it is not normal oil — i.e., it is not as “good” as regular oil (an extremely low bar, if you ask me). Almost all of it lives in Alberta’s tar sands, a sticky, greasy combination of 10 percent bitumen and 90 percent sand, clay, and water that underlay an area the size of Florida.

This vast store was first discovered by the Cree, and used benignly enough to patch canoes. It was first utilized by industry in 1967 with a mine operated by Suncor. The primary method of extraction is to remove the “overburden” — Orwellian newspeak for what the rest of us might call living Earth: lakes, streams, old-growth Boreal forests, and wildlife. Once all living matter is removed, some of the largest open pit mines in the world are used to extract the bitumen.

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Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, trucks haul 400-ton loads to polluting industrial facilities called “upgraders” that turn the sands into synthetic crude. Some of our biggest companies and largest cities buy tar sands gas and diesel — unwittingly, at this point. Current production is over 1.4 million barrels per day. Canada plans to at least triple that in the next decade.

I went to the tar sands this fall. My organization has been challenging Canadian officials publicly to keep their dirty oil and generating media around the issue since January. I have read many reports, books, and articles, and been briefed by my staff and others who have been there. None of that prepared me for what I would witness.

The tar sands are what you get when you combine 18th Century nonchalance about toxic substances, 21st Century greed, and medieval sensibilities about the ethical treatment of human beings. It is the place that inspired Al Gore to say in Rolling Stone: “It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes.”

That junkie is us — and Canada is the pusher.

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But there are some simple ways to improve things. Like not exempting the tar sands from practically every environmental law in Canada — that would be a start. Like applying basic precautions including cleaning up toxic tailings ponds, installing air pollution controls, and conducting health assessments of workers and downstream communities. Like consulting with First Nations, implementing carbon capture and sequestration, and pursuing biodiversity offsets.

Instead, Canada’s response to criticism has been to launch a $25 million public relations campaign. More recently the federal government made an earnest but laughable overture to President-elect Obama — a climate-protection deal that protects the tar sands from potentially forthcoming U.S. climate regulations. This is not going to change anyone’s impression of the most destructive fossil-fuel project on the planet — but it will mean further delay in real change. And that’s something no one on this planet can afford.

To get involved and learn more, check out Forest Ethics’ Stop Tar Sands campaign.

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