Canada’s tar sands, which have become a major and secure supplier of oil to the United States, have also been singled out as a major target for American and Canadian environmentalists. Issuing press releases against them, however, is one thing. Going without the increasing flood of oil they are pouring into the American market would be quite another.

Two American environmental groups have declared war on the tar sands. One is the Freedom from Oil Coalition whose San Francisco-based director is formerly of Alberta, the province where almost all the tar sands are located. He was in Alberta last week organizing a training camp for protesters bent on civil disobedience against the tar sands projects.

Last week a small circle of protesters at Rimbey in central Alberta, several under the age of 12, all with their mouths symbolically taped to protect them from “emissions,” demonstrated against a new pipeline project. It was a symbolic gesture and a seemingly pointless exercise, but it was a start. Rimbey, however, is more than 300 miles away from the tar sands.

The other environmental group is the much more powerful Natural Resources Defense Council. On Monday it issued a report warning the American and Canadian governments against oil produced from the tar-sogged lands around Fort McMurray, Alberta, about 200 miles north of Edmonton. These lands contain (it is said) more oil than exists in Saudi Arabia. However, it is mined, not pumped, and the extraction costs are much higher.

So are the costs of the process by which the sand is turned into heavy oil by heating it with natural gas, a product in which Alberta abounds.

The oil sands are “one of the worst possible ways” to relieve the oil shortage, said Deron Lovaas, an analyst with the council. He meant that the process intensifies greenhouse gas emissions and consumes natural gas, a much cleaner source of fuel.

The oil sands already had two high-profile enemies – Al Gore, who says it takes four tons of earth to produce one barrel of oil from the sands (the industry says the average is closer to two tons), and California Gov.r Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited Canada last month, championing low-carbon sources for American oil.

Two writers for the National Post newspaper came to the industry’s defense. Oil patch columnist Claudia Cattaneo offered a few salient facts. For one, the Canadian oil sands industry is making major efforts to cut back emissions. For another, it is the American motorist who is creating the demand for tar sands oil, and American money that is financing much of the development. Finally, Americans, as the biggest consumers of energy in the world, do not make convincing environmental critics.

Moreover, wrote fellow columnist Kevin Libin, if Alberta quit sending the oil sands product to the U.S. – it’s now running at about 1,000,000 barrels a day – the Americans would have to buy more from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record is at least as bad as the Canadian emissions record, and neither can be considered a secure supplier.

Finally, if the American market didn’t want Alberta oil, the Asian market would be only too happy to take it, in which case the Americans would still suffer the emissions and not get the oil. Against these facts, press releases could hardly contend.

Just how effective civil disobedience might be at Fort McMurray was also worth pondering. The place in one sense is almost uninhabitable – uninhabitable, that is, by more human beings than already inhabit it.

It and the area around it are one vast construction site, roaring night and day with trucks and earth-moving vehicles, some of them the height of a four-story building. Housing is in the main unobtainable; many men live in tents summer and winter. Hundreds of construction workers come and go every day. Restaurants and bars are packed. There are far more trucks on the streets than cars. Many skilled workers can make well over $100,000 a year, but can’t find a place to live. The town teems with prostitutes. And the announcements of more billion-dollar projects are being made month after month.

Where in all this boiling mass of mud, men and machinery will the protesters find a place to protest? Where will they pitch their tents? All the best spots for miles around are already taken. Somehow Fort McMurray doesn’t seem to lend itself to civil disobedience. How do you disrupt the civil order when there is so little evidence of there being one?

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