Oil Pressure: the fight to stop the tar sands
Posted by mhudema on November 9, 2008
What happens in Northern Alberta is no longer a provincial issue.
Now the world is watching — the oilsands have gone global
You either loved it or hated it last week when Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, compared Alberta’s oilsands mines to the bleak, desolate landscape of Mordor ruled by the Dark Lord in the fictional trilogy Lord of the Rings.
Greenpeace activists suspended a massive protest banner at a Syncrude tailings pond north of Fort McMurray in July. Angry oilpatch workers dismissed her derisively. One of them wrote: “This is how it is; Get over it.”
Others said Barlow was speaking a truth that can’t be spoken in Alberta — that rapid industrial development in the northeast boreal forest is taking too big a toll on the environment.
Whatever side you’re on, the entry of Barlow and the COC is just one of several recent signals that the debate over oilsands development is heating up, spreading well beyond Alberta’s borders and raising some critical questions for the province.
Will Alberta be faced with a global campaign to slow oilsands development? Might this be on a par with the anti-seal hunt protest, with its International Day of Action Against the Canadian Seal Hunt in 36 cities around the world?
How will the government of Alberta react to the growing pressure? Will it dig in its heels and continue to pursue its goal of doubling bitumen production, or will it respond with new policy?
What will be the energy policies of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama?
OIL PRESSURE / Development of the oilsands has made Alberta
a target for environmental activists in Canada and beyond
From page E1 There can be no denying that a stronger, louder environmental protest is gearing up:
The oilsands provoke strong — and differing — reactions from detractors and defenders.In the last 18 months, Alberta’s homegrown environmental groups like the Pembina Institute and Federation of Alberta Naturalists have been joined by others. At the far left are Greenpeace, which set up an office in August 2007, and Oilsands Truth. Both want to shut down the oilsands.
At the other end of the spectrum is Ecojustice, a well-established, Vancouver-based environmental law organization. It opened an Alberta office last week. This agency isn’t a lobby group but rather uses the courts to fight for enforcement of existing laws.
Last year, Premier Ed Stelmach got the first taste of the “dirty oil” campaign when he went to Washington. D.C. Last week, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner ran into Greenpeace protestors on a visit to Norway to discuss carbon sequestration.
Such protests are emerging at home now, too. Just this week, Quebec environmentalists voiced concerns about plans by pipeline company Enbridge to ship bitumen through Quebec into the Maritimes and eventually to the U.S. Gulf coast.
Their question: Should Quebec, with its commitment to Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reductions, encourage the use of this “dirty oil?”
Is the oilpatch worried? From his Calgary office tower, Greg Stringham, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, takes a measured tone.
It’s neither surprising nor alarming that the debate is getting more heated in the wake of the American election campaign, says Stringham.
“Environmentalists are increasing the awareness and that’s an obvious thing for them to do right now.”
Canada and the U.S. will soon embark on negotiations for a joint climate-change pact. Meanwhile, the industry has more work to do to reduce its environmental footprint, says Stringham.
But slowing down oilsands development is the wrong way to go, he says.
“You can’t tell the auto industry to stop selling cars until they finally build a fuel-efficient car. If you stop projects, you won’t get the new technology.”
“There’s a lot of room” in this debate for oil companies to show what they are doing to improve their environmental performance, he says. “People are past the point of taking our word for it,” Stringham added.
Albertans shouldn’t be surprised at all this attention from outside the province, says Ricardo Acuna of the left-leaning, Edmonton-based Parkland Institute.
The oilsands are now a globalized resource, with corporations like Shell, Statoil of Norway and Imperial Oil all major players. That has led to increased awareness of oilsands activities in other countries, says Acuna. “Alberta’s internal debate is now happening on a global scale and we’re not used to it,” says Acuna.
Stelmach’s plan to combat the negative images of open-pit mines, destruction of the boreal forest and growing greenhouse gas emissions is a $25-million public-relations campaign. It might work in Alberta where there is a “captive audience,” says Acuna
But it won’t work on a global scale, he predicts. What’s needed are better policies and regulation.
As for the extreme images of the oilsands as an emerging Mordor, they will be useful in mobilizing a critical mass of protest to effect change, he says. People don’t have a good idea of the scale of development — one-fifth of Alberta’s landmass is in the oilsands zone.
“But on the negative side, the rhetoric can make people lose sight of human side of the story, that the jobs of 40 per cent of Albertans are connected to the oil patch, and 70 per cent of the economy is driven by the oil industry.
“So at the same time, we need to have people putting forward the message about building a new green economy and the transition away from an oil economy,” says Acuna.
“Also, the rhetoric makes this all about industry and corporations. But it should be about governments. Industry is just doing its job for shareholders. It’s government that is failing us.”
University of Alberta business professor Joseph Doucette sees it differently. He downplays the impact of pressure from external environmental forces.
It will be much harder to mobilize people around oil production, which isn’t well understood, than around images of seal pups, he says.
For one thing, people don’t like paying high prices at the pumps, whatever their environmental position, says Doucette, “so there’s a disconnect.”
Second, the U.S. demand for oilsands bitumen to replace Middle East oil is still very strong, he said. Environmentalists will find that “a tough nut to crack.”
“At the end of the day, most people won’t care what Maude Barlow has to say,” he says.
But faced with a louder, stronger environmental protest, Albertans might well be prompted to rethink the Ralph Klein, laissez-faire approach to the energy market, says Doucette.
“Most Albertans don’t want to end up with a wasteland in a century, but we haven’t yet come up with good ideas on how to fix it,” says Doucette.
“We might have to get away from the Klein-era mantra that government should not be involved in business.”
“Government plays a key role when it sets up the rules of the game. ”
The call for stronger regulation would resonate in some corporate boardrooms. Just two weeks ago at a Journal editorial board, Shell called on the government to come up with better regulations around greenhouse gas emissions so the company could move ahead with an expensive carbon-storage scheme.
Several events in coming months will put the debate over oilsands development front and centre, says Dan Woynillowicz of the Pembina Institute.
Pembina has done the heavy lifting for years on oilsand environmental issues, producing an array of scientific reports on issues such as water supply, tailings ponds and destruction of wildlife habitat.
The Pembina isn’t prone to heated rhetoric, but, like the Council of Canadians, it wants no new approvals for oilsands projects until the current environmental issues are dealt with, from GHGemissions to low water flow in the Athbasca River.
Pembina, along with several other environmental groups, next March will call for a delay when French oil giant Total seeks approval for its open pit mine from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board.
Before that, in December, the Canadian government will go to Poznan, Poland for a Climate Change Conference to plan for the next step after the Kyoto protocol.
Meanwhile, says Woynillowicz, watch out for increasing tensions within Canada over the impact of the massive oilsands development in other provinces.
He noted that CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin last week pointed to higher energy costs as a significant factor in the global downturn, not just falling house prices.
“So we may see some sentiment that the uncontrolled development in Alberta is hurting the Ontario economy,” says Woynillowicz.
Meanwhile, the economic slowdown provides the perfect opportunity for Alberta to come up with some new regulations to address the environmental issues, he says.
But Dave Taras, a communications professor at the University of Calgary, says don’t hold your breath. In downtown Calgary, the sudden economic slowdown is pushing environmental concerns right off the table.
“A lot of people won’t be sympathetic to in-yourface moral anger. That could change, but it’s not a good time for protests,” he says.
Besides, unless the environmental campaign translates into anti-government votes at the ballot box, it has little traction in Alberta. There was definitely no sign in the last election, which delivered another Conservative landslide, that voters had any time for the call for slower oilsands development.
“The real climate change is when you enter Alberta,” he quipped.
Taras is also skeptical an anti-oilsands campaign will succeed in Europe.
“Europe is eager to unhook themselves from Russian supplies, so I’m not sure the business elites will be moved.”
But this growing debate over the “black gold rush” in the oilsands is much broader than an environmental issue, says Calgary author Andrew Nikiforuk, who just released his new book Tarsands — Dirty Oil and The Future of a Continent.
“This is a political story, about the development of the country,” says Nikiforuk, who calls the tarsands the world’s largest energy project. In Canada, it impacts every province, he says
“This is Alberta’s revenge for the National Energy Program. We’ve managed to tank the Ontario manufacturing sector and brought the country further into the U.S. trading orbit.
“When Ontario becomes a have-not province, the rapid development of the tarsands had something to do with it.”
Alberta and Canada are also taking a drubbing from some prestigious economic agencies, including the Conference Board of Canada, the International Monetary Fund and the OECDfor their handling of the oilsands and the vast royalties, said Nikiforuk.
“We need a national debate about how to slowdown the oilsands, how to get better regulations and bring in conservation and renewable energy,” says Nikiforuk.
“We need a conservative agenda, not the libertarian one that just tanked the global financial markets,” he says.
“Otherwise, Peter Lougheed’s prediction will come true. The U.S. will put pressure on Canada to clean up the oilsands and there will be a constitutional battle.”
Over at the Sierra Club offices in Edmonton, Lindsay Telfer says the environment movement won’t make the same mistake it did during the antiseal hunt campaign years ago when it didn’t address the livelihood of the hunters.
This time, the emphasis is on building a new energy economy with lots of jobs in green technology.
“It’s not just about slowing down the tarsands, but also building an economy based on alternative energy,” says Telfer.
But that message tends to get lost in the media, which play up the conflict, she adds.
“Alberta has gone through so many boom and bust cycles, I just want to see some leadership that will break that cycle.
“We need a pace of development that will make the resource last for 90 years and that starts with slowing down the rate of approvals.”
“The protests are getting stronger because we’re not seeing any change,” she says.
“Until we get a sense of something happening, the protests will continue.”