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Greengroups quit government tar sands group

Posted by mhudema on August 19, 2008

Green groups quit oil sands forum

Protest move made as Industry Minister in U.S. to address concerns about environmental impact

CALGARY AND OTTAWA — Three groups have quit a government-sponsored forum for assessing environmental costs in the oil sands, a move that undercuts government efforts to burnish the image of the massive developments in U.S. markets.

The latest flare-up between the Alberta government and environmental activists came as federal Industry Minister Jim Prentice sought to reassure an international audience that the oil sands are being developed in a responsible way and are critical to U.S. energy security.

“Developing our oil sands has had its environmental challenges, but we’ve come a long way,” he told an Americas Competitiveness Forum.

He said the federal government is insisting that Canada be the most responsible environmental producer of oil and gas in the world, and added that oil sands producers have reduced the production of greenhouse gases for each barrel of oil from the oil sands by 45 per cent since 1990.

“We will also be introducing tough new regulations that will require even more dramatic cuts.”

Canadian environmentalists have found key allies in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere in their bid to force the industry to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, as well as other pollutants. The Alberta government is fighting back with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign that has, among other things, brought U.S. journalists and politicians to Fort McMurray to see the projects for themselves.

That public relations campaign suffered a setback yesterday when three groups that have sought to work with the province on environmental impacts said the consultations had become a farce.

Frustrated that repeated calls to curb oil sands development are being ignored, the groups are pulling out of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a consortium comprised of government, industry, First Nations groups and non-governmental organizations that have an interest in the oil sands.

“We tried the inside approach to bringing about change … and the government has said ‘yup, we hear what you’re saying and we agree that these are the problems’ and yet they haven’t been willing to step up,” Chris Severson-Baker, a policy director for the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, said. “We feel we’ve exhausted the possibility of working within CEMA to bring about changes.”

Pembina Institute, along with the Toxics Watch Society of Alberta and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, have been working with CEMA since its inception eight years ago. The association was created to bring together a range of stakeholders to assess the environmental effects of oil sands projects and to make recommendations on how projects should proceed.

Pembina’s decision to walk away from the group is disappointing, said Glen Semenchuk, CEMA’s executive director.

“I don’t think what Pembina is saying is that CEMA does bad scientific work,” said Mr. Semenchuk. “I think Pembina’s frustration and the frustration of the First Nations and the frustration of a lot of members is the politics, that when things come out it seems to take a long time to see a result.”

Mr. Severson-Baker agreed that Pembina’s withdrawal from the group is meant as a condemnation of the Alberta government’s continued willingness to green-light oil sands development.

Oil sands producers have faced a barrage of criticism, including a resolution passed by American mayors calling on the U.S. government not to support oil sands development. But Mr. Prentice said the U.S. depends on Alberta’s unconventional oil resources to bolster its security of supply.

“The whole issue of North American energy security coupled with responsible environmental stewardship are the flip sides of the same issue,” the Minister said in an interview from Atlanta.

“The oil sands are critical to North American energy security and it’s important that we explain, not only to the Americans but internationally, the responsible way in which those developments are going to unfold.”

Paul Haavardsrud is a freelance reporter based in Calgary.

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