Energy battles boiling over
Posted by mhudema on June 17, 2008
|Richard Cuthbertson and Dan Healing, with files from Renata|
A Wall Street analyst attending Calgary’s prominent energy investment forum found himself in the eye of a growing environmental storm battering Alberta’s oilsands — one of several clashes centred on the energy sector Monday.
About 50 people gathered outside the Hyatt Regency to protest the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers investment conference, an annual event that draws hundreds of oil executives and well-heeled corporate clientele from around the globe.
Ross Levin, a New York hedge fund analyst, decided to find out what the fuss was about, but when Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema offered him a bottle of muddy Lake Athabasca water to drink — the main source of water for the booming oilsands — he declined.
Soon, a protester began shouting accusing questions and the dialogue ended. The analyst with Arbiter Partners retreated behind the guarded south doors.
“I’m really just a passive speculator in securities . . . that’s why I wanted to take a walk out there,” he explained later.
On the other side of the debate, Lionel Lepine, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, charged that people are dying because of the oilsands development.
“Our whole traditional way of life is going to be gone thanks to the oilsands,” he said.
The skirmish underscores the growing conflict breaking out between the public and Alberta’s powerful energy sector.
On Monday, that list included rural landowners angry about new power lines crossing their properties in central Alberta; cabin owners upset by an oil pipeline leak into a resort lake; and environmentalists fearful about the impact of heavy oil upgraders being built north of Edmonton.
Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight believes extra attention and conflicts are a result of the province’s energy sector expanding its footprint as the economy grows.
Indeed, the energy industry has been ramping up activity as prices for oil, natural gas and electricity have surged. The province’s energy regulator has seen applications increase from 19,000 in 1995 to more than 60,000 in 2006.
Since 1998, electricity demand has grown at a rate equivalent to adding two cities the size of Red Deer annually. Last year, Alberta’s load growth was equal to that of Ontario — a province with three times the population.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of capital deployed in Alberta over the last decade or so,” Knight said in an interview. “Of course, when you have that kind of volume of work going on, it will attract . . . individuals that feel that this is not in the best interest of Albertans, or our environment.”
Perhaps nowhere is the conflict more tangible than in the community of Rimbey, where a nasty dispute over a proposed power line has boiled over for months and prompted a fresh round of protests Monday evening before a public forum took place.
Joe Anglin, who’s led opposition to the contentious power line project, said Alberta’s “breakneck” pace of development simply isn’t working.
“Right now, there’s a lot of distrust and there’s a lot of dissension,” he said of the relationship between industry and some members of the public.
It’s not just landowners opposing projects in their own backyards who are growing uneasy.
On Monday, environmental think-tank the Pembina Institute recommended a pause on development along Upgrader Alley — northeast of Edmonton — until long-term plans are created to deal with the environmental impact.
Right now, there is only one upgrader running in the 530-square-kilometre industrial zone between Fort Saskatchewan and Lamont. Two more are under construction and applications have been submitted for five more in the area, also known as Alberta’s Industrial Heartland.
But Neil Shelly, executive director of the Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association, maintains government and industry are doing everything they should to minimize the upgraders’ footprint. “We’re looking at the environmental impacts and how we can mitigate them,” he said.
All this came the same day that crews began cleaning up between 75 and 125 barrels of crude oil that leaked into the Red Deer River Sunday night. Booms were deployed to contain an oil sheen that appeared about 33 kilometres downstream on Gleniffer Lake.
“People aren’t going to be impressed,” said Barry Sheppard of Edmonton, whose father owns a resort home on the lake.
Industry officials acknowledge the public is becoming more engaged in environmental affairs.
At the investment forum in Calgary, CAPP president Pierre Alvarez said the protesters aren’t saying anything the industry doesn’t already know about. He maintained Alberta’s oilsands are an important energy source and government attempts to control the pace of development would be doomed to failure.
“The investor community over the past couple of years has been increasingly aware of the environmental and social issues,” Alvarez said. “Companies are responding to that challenge.”
John Zahary, president and CEO of Harvest Energy Trust, said the environmental issues are important. His company takes about a quarter of its annual production from heavy oil and the oilsands.
“I think these are discussions the country and the province have to have. From that perspective it’s a useful exercise,” he said. “I’m not sure this venue is the best use of anyone’s time. But I think the topics are important: land use, water use, air use.”