Of mallards and millionaires

By Cam Cotton-O’Brien

The recent assassination of 1,606 ducks in northern Alberta is a stark reminder that the government, industry and citizens of this province and this country need to confront the ever more prescient issue of the oilsands.

About a month ago, when it was still believed that only 500 ducks had met their demise in the oilsands’ tailings ponds, National Geographic Magazine, one of the most widely read periodicals in the world, published a photo spread detailing the environmental devastation these money makers are reaping on the province. National Geographic is not the only international press Alberta’s oilsands are getting, either. FFWD Weekly reported that Vanity Fair is getting set to publish their own expose of Alberta’s industry.

And the concern cannot simply be pinned on environmental issues. With the second largest known oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, there is an economic imperative to deal with the problem, as well. A climate change bill with the potential to impact Canadian industry was revealed in the United States House of Representatives on March 31. It has been largely recognized in the public domain that President Barack Obama is set on running an environmentally responsible administration, so it cannot be assumed that the bill will be the sole potentially damaging piece of American legislation for Canada’s oil industry. Thus, encouraged by negative publicity and potentially forced into action by economic pressures, now is the perfect opportunity to confront the issue of Alberta’s oilsands.

Yet, despite this incentive to develop a thorough policy for addressing the increasingly relevant oilsands issue, much of the commentary directed at critics of Alberta’s premier industry remains unable to provide anything more than useless misdirection. Shortly after the National Geographic expose came out, popular Canadian commentator Rex Murphy utilized his weekly TV spot on CBC’s The National to counterattack. In typical form, he produced a very intelligent and articulate argument lambasting the hypocrisy of that organization who, he pointed out, use large energy resources to publish and distribute their product; that particular issue, even. While this type of argument is effective in a limited sense, it doesn’t actually address the issue in any meaningful capacity. It merely shifts the focus to discredit the group asking the question, in this way choosing to ignore the problems that they have raised.

Another common theme in recent analysis of the issue is that the U.S., for all their bluffing, won’t actually be able to impose severe restrictions on our oil. They have to get it from somewhere, the argument goes, and Alberta is by far the most politically stable region to deal with. There are two deep concerns with this contention. The first is that it supposes the U.S. will be more willing to deal with Alberta than other areas. This may be the case, but it’s a big gamble to make. If public opinion continues to become increasingly hostile to detrimental environmental policy, other oil producing locations will begin to look more and more attractive. And this is completely ignoring the possibility of new clean energy technologies. The second issue with this argument is that there are legitimate concerns to be dealt with in the oilsands. The theory that the U.S. will succumb to their need for oil leads directly into a dangerous apathy on the part of everyone concerning further development of clean technology and other beneficial environmental and health initiatives. Assuming that the problem is a dead issue due to a likely American capitulation steals any impetus to move forward in energy and health technologies.

The federal government is severely underperforming in all regards. Two days ago the Calgary Herald reported that, though the Conservatives had articulated emissions reduction targets back in 2007, there are yet to be any regulations actually put in practice. In spite of the federal government’s lack of action, there have been some positive steps taken. Alberta has recently added regulations to clean up tailings ponds and mandate time lines for their reclamation once they have been shut down. The government has also proposed a great deal of financial support for reducing carbon emissions.

But while these measures are certainly worthwhile, there is still far more to be done. Alberta’s oilsands produce three to five times more greenhouse gas emissions than do conventional oil extraction methods. There is, then, a huge uphill battle to be fought to even be on par with other producers. And even though this is the case, the Alberta government is wasting $25 million to rebrand the province as environmentally responsible.

As well, greenhouse gases are only one small aspect of the environmental crisis created by the oilsands. There remains the potentially adverse health effects for individuals living in the vicinity or near contaminated waterways, the extent of which is currently unknown. A government study into the allegedly abnormally high cancer rates in the Fort Chipewyan community was rejected as poorly executed by members of that community, after it found there was no real concern for the community.

We have is a great opportunity to actually take positive action to solve what is clearly one of the biggest issues confronting Alberta. With a U.S. regime hostile to environmental irresponsibility and rising international attention, not the good kind, being directed at the oilsands, there doesn’t really seem to be too much choice. Now is not the time for nonsense publicity campaigns and useless rhetoric, now is the time to actually do something.

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