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Farming vs. Oil Sands Mining the Environmental Impact

Listening to the radio at work today, I heard about 12 protesters angry about the Saskatchewan government’s “sale” of the oil sands to oil companies. A clip of one of the protesters came on who complained a little too passionately that Saskatchewan is meant for farming, not mining, or something along those lines. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

I know the mining of the oil sands that’s going on in Alberta has an enormous impact, but I can’t help but think that no matter what people say or how much they protest, that oil is going to be mined. One can only wish it was done better, namely by using the fewest resources possible and with strict monitoring and control of the pollution going on. Trying to stop the oil from being extracted at all borders on crazy. The only way to stop it is to make alternatives to oil cheaper, or find other sources of oil that aren’t as destructive to mine. As it is, the government is saying that horizontal drilling technology will be used rather than the famously devastating strip mining that’s being done in Alberta.

What really blew me away was the typical sort of ignorant comment made by someone other people probably will think of as an “environmentalist” or out-of-touch hippy, that farming would be a better use of the province. A lot of people from the prairies (and elsewhere, but especially in the prairies) don’t realize the environmental impact of putting hundreds of thousands of square kilometers into agricultural production. (Never mind the fact that farming isn’t exactly a cash cow since cheap food is the base of our complex, well-developed, diversified economy. Farming’s so bad a business to be in that there’s a joke that passing on the family farm to one’s children is child abuse.)

Recently my work site was mowed. The site is marshy, home to cattails and many birds. What isn’t under water or directly being trod upon by human activity is allowed to freely grow wild, and whatever grows there, I’ve noticed, people commonly refer to as “weeds.” So whatever’s wild is considered a weed, because if it doesn’t come with a label from a store, it must be a weed. Anyway, before the site was mowed various species of birds had abundant choices of tall “weeds” to hide in. Afterward, most of the birds that had been there disappeared, or presumably were limited to the unmowed sections of the site and city birds, such as crows and magpies, moved in.

This is one small area, a few acres in size. Imagine the impact of plowing fields and growing monocultures there. Mining the oil sands might be polluting in nature, but farming, by its very scope undoubtedly has a greater impact. The impact of cutting down on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and growing much more mixed crops or leaving more land to grow wild or at least have hedges for birds and bees and other pollinators (all of which we need for pollination anyway, and seem to be running out of) is not something people talk much about, except in greenie circles. But the oil sands, everybody knows they’re bad. I don’t think it even goes as far as people just accepting they need to eat and the current agricultural system is the one we’ve got. It’s simply not even considered, not even known that agricultural is one of the biggest ways humanity makes an impact on the natural environment. People with oil heating in their homes and workplaces also need to stay warm and probably appreciate oil being mined, especially with prices going up all the time, but there really isn’t a whole lot of oil heating around here, so I guess they’re just assuming people can just suck it up and drive less, which, yes, they can, much as they whine, that is one thing that most people could do much, much less of.

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