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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Oil, Acid and Tankers: Why the campaign against Enbridge Northern Gateway is more than a pipeline – it’s a path to our future.

Sheila Muxlow is the Energy Campaign Manager at Living Oceans Society.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m going to rant about the evils of fossil fuels and the horrors of climate change and the devastation we are going to leave for future generations if we continue on with the status quo. And your right. Kind of. Because I’m going to write about another sinister related issue; something that is terrorizing the oceans right now, eroding coral reefs and disintegrating seashells. It’s real and it’s horrifying.

It’s ocean acidification.

How, you might ask, does ocean acidification connect to the fight to stop tankers from degrading the natural environment of the BC coast with noise pollution and the constant threat of an oil spill? Good question! Thanks for asking!

You see, the proposals to cover the Pacific coast with hundreds of super tankers are directly linked to the tar sands: the largest industrial project in the world. The tar sands are a relatively recent form of fossil fuel extraction that has become financially viable due to the decreasing availability of conventional oil resources. Tar sands mining rips up thousands of square kilometers of Boreal Forest every year, displacing both Indigenous and settler communities while creating tailing lakes of toxic waste. The extraction process pumps thousands of tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals into the air, not the least of which is carbon — the tar sands process is three times more carbon intensive than conventional oil extraction.

Carbon, as you might have guessed, is the major cause of ocean acidification. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ocean has been absorbing 25% of the carbon that we pump into the atmosphere, resulting in more than 500 billion tonnes of CO2. When it’s absorbed into the ocean the carbon changes the pH levels of the water by increasing the carbonic acid. The colder waters of the polar regions allow CO2 to be absorbed more quickly, making the oceans more acidic, faster. Today the ocean is 40% more acidic than it was in pre-industrial times. Researchers have concluded that oceans haven't seen a rapid change like this in 60 million years.

One of the most visible consequences of ocean acidification is the inability for sea life to form shells and exoskeletons, including the larvae of some fish. There are already instances along the South Central Pacific Coast where waters have become so acidic that the shells of oyster larvae have dissolved faster than they can form. In fact, Pacific oysters of the coast of Washington state have not been able to reproduce in the wild since 2005.

Ocean acidification is also linked to the death of coral reefs. As they decay, the marine life which are dependent on the reefs are lost with them. Roughly 80% of all life is found in the oceans, 25% of which is dependent on coral reefs for their habitat, thus creating a domino effect of species loss and extinction when coral reefs are lost.

But to escalate my horrific sense of urgency, I came across a study released last month, where researchers looked at the impact of ocean acidification on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is a micro algae that, like plants, obtains energy through a process called photosynthesis. Not only do they serve as an essential food for countless marine species, but phytoplankton creates oxygen. Through phytoplankton the ocean produces more than half of the oxygen for our world! However, this study found that if ocean acidification reached an increased acidity of 70% from pre-industrial times, the sunlight that routinely gives life to the phytoplankton would actually kill it. This is terrifying because predictions are that if we continue with our status quo carbon emissions, we could hit levels of 70% acidity as soon as 2050!

If we truly want to leave a planet behind for our children, our nephews and nieces, our friends from the younger generations, then we need to add ocean acidification to the bigger picture of the choices we make for the future!

So, taking us back to the connection between stopping tankers on the coast, I hope it is becoming clear that this campaign is part of a network of other courageous campaigns from folks willing to say “No” to the continuation of an industrial economy built around fossil fuels.

For a twist of irony, I took a line from the new multi-million dollar ad campaign that Enbridge just launched in hope to convince people to support their tar sands pipeline and tanker transport plans:

“Its more than a pipeline, it's a path to our future.”

As the very clever video below illustrates, that future can take many forms:

So, true enough, it is about more than a pipeline and it is about a path to our future. But we are at a fork in the road. To the one side we have a path to tanker traffic along the Pacific coast expanding the legacy of a toxic fossil fuel-based economy and all the social and ecological devastation that comes along with it. On the other side we say “No” to tankers off the Pacific coast and oppose the expansion of the tar sands. It's one of the first steps we can take to transition off of fossil fuels to cleaner more sustainable and renewable energy sources.

As Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Bring your optimism into the campaign to keep the Pacific coast tanker-free and be part of the movement for a healthy, sustainable, ecologically respectful world. Connect with me at Living Oceans Society at and help create the future we need to see!

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