STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Will duck disaster kill Alberta’s golden goose?

Posted by mhudema on May 7, 2008

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Presented by

Gary Lamphier,  Canwest News Service Published: Tuesday, May 06, 2008

EDMONTON — It’s not really about the ducks.

Awful as it was, the grisly deaths of some 500 birds last week in a toxic Syncrude tailings pond doesn’t hold a candle to the endless parade of human horror stories that unfold each day in Darfur, Zimbabwe and dozens of other hellholes around the globe.

You want tragedy? Look around. We’ve got a planet full of it.

But that’s beside the point. The point is that the Great Duck Disaster happened at all in an industry, a province – and a country – that must surely hold itself to a higher standard of environmental stewardship, if for no other reason than craven economic self-interest.

For once in my life, I actually find myself in agreement with Mike Hudema and his colleagues at Greenpeace, whom I usually lambaste for spinning tall tales about the oilsands’ contribution to carbon emissions.

Those dead ducks are now a vivid symbol of the collective failure of both the Alberta government and of Syncrude, operator of the northern Alberta mine and its tailings pond, and one of the industry’s most visible and influential players.

I doubt Premier Ed Stelmach and his crew would ever consider launching a full public inquiry into the industry’s environmental practices, as Hudema now demands – but he’s right nonetheless. Syncrude’s failure underscores the need for more independent regulatory oversight of the province’s most important industry.

Clearly, self-policing isn’t working, and the downside risk to all Albertans is too huge to allow self-serving, bottom-line-driven energy companies to call all the shots in a world that views the oilsands with increasing hostility.

Alberta’s Tory government, which has just embarked on a $25-million PR campaign to tout the industry’s environmental credentials, might as well light a big bonfire and burn the money instead.

All the stats in the world won’t undo the damning images of the sludge-soaked dead ducks that popped up in newspapers around the planet. They were like an early Christmas gift to eco-activists who want to see Alberta’s “tar sands” shut down or curtailed. The only thing missing was the gift wrap.

What’s so mind-boggling is that Syncrude – and the Tory government – would even run the risk of allowing such an event to occur. Corporate execs love to talk about “mitigating risks” and protecting their downside.

In this case, the risks were either ignored or downplayed, possibly by bean counters unwilling to spend a few extra bucks.

The excuses offered by Syncrude and the province for the delay in deploying noisemaking cannons to scare migrating waterfowl away just don’t wash.

Late winter storms? Give me a break. They’re hardly a rarity in Alberta.

Not enough wildlife or environmental officers to monitor all the oilsands operations? You must be joking. If Alberta can’t afford to hire a few dozen bureaucrats to protect the province’s environmental reputation and ensure a viable future for the oilsands, something is seriously wrong here.

Now, it’s too late, and there will be hell to pay.

As everyone knows, the oilsands are Alberta’s economic meal ticket. More than $100 billion worth of projects are planned or underway near Fort McMurray. Billions more will be spent on related upgraders and pipelines.

If not for the oilsands, the economy of Alberta – and Canada as a whole – would be flat on its back, aping the downturn in the U.S.

Ontario’s auto industry is in trouble. Forestry is a disaster. Tourism is down. The banks are hurting. Only the mining, energy and agricultural sectors are keeping Canada afloat, and the oilsands are clearly the crown jewel.

More money will flow to the oilsands this year than to Canada’s entire manufacturing sector. According to one study, oilsands firms will generate $123 billion of total tax and royalty revenue for government coffers through 2020, with Ottawa raking in 41% of that and Alberta 36%.

Of the tens of thousands of new jobs tied to the oilsands, 44% will be created outside this province, including 16% in Ontario.

The profits flowing from the oilsands – and the energy industry as a whole – are breathtaking. Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Syncrude’s largest shareholder, just reported a first-quarter profit of $298 million, up 14% from a year ago. It promptly hiked its quarterly cash payout by 33%.

Yet, the current maximum fine Syncrude may face is a mere $1 million. As Hudema points out, Canadian Oil Sands would have earned its first million bucks in 2007 by the time its execs sat down to breakfast on New Year’s Day. He calls that “chump change.”

It’s time the Alberta government and the big oilsands players woke up and smelled the coffee. The world is watching. The stakes are high. Like it or not, and whether it’s entirely fair or not, Alberta’s environmental stewardship in the oilsands is now under the microscope.

No, this isn’t really about the ducks. It’s about whether Alberta’s golden goose is going to get cooked because of rampant stupidity and greed.

— Edmonton Journal

glamphier@thejournal.canwest.com

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