By Janet Keeping, leader, Green Party of Alberta
One of the greatest harms caused by the ever-expanding oil sands projects is the way denial of the problems caused by them is undermining democracy in Alberta. The view of too many in government and industry has been that the oilsands must be shielded from pretty much any and all criticism because they are essential – and with every expansion ever more essential – to our economy. As a result critics are aggressively attacked as “emotional” or “traitors” – anything to shut them up. All criticism has been off limits.
It doesn’t seem to matter that there are even Cabinet ministers who doubt the wisdom of allowing the oilsands to dominate our public policy and economy in the way they do. In a speech delivered in November in Prince Edward Island while he was deputy premier, Doug Griffiths lamented the imbalance caused by the energy sector: he has been quoted as saying that, “Everyone thinks it’s a benefit and a bonus because we have such a dominant commodity, but you know it sucks the life out of every other aspect of Alberta.”
Nor has it mattered that by largely ignoring the severity of the environmental and Aboriginal issues, government and industry have been endangering the social license of the industry to operate. Much of the rest of the world has seen through the blustering, spin and denial by Alberta’s government and the oilsands industry. Ironically, support for the oilsands is weaker because criticism has been muzzled.
And then along comes “Heart of Gold” Canadian icon Neil Young who blows the doors off the enforced silence. People who have avoided talking about the oilsands like the plague are forced to say something. Is it just possible that a public discussion has been launched? I sure hope so.
Don’t get me wrong. I too wish that Young had had all his facts straight. For example, oilsands production does not go primarily to China as Young said. Overwhelmingly it goes to US markets. But that isn’t the crux of the matter. The important thing is that by provoking more discussion about the oilsands than we have ever before had in a comparable length of time, he has put his celebrity to good public use.
True, the discussion so provoked has been pretty low quality with irrelevancies tossed around with gay abandon. I mean, seriously, of course Neil Young has to take planes to do the kind of work that he does. That should not be held against him, nor should that fact be taken as undermining what he has to say.
If we progress to a better, more inclusive and sustained discussion of the oilsands, then we’ll have the opportunity to consider something other than the polarized, false dichotomy of “all or nothing” that is usually forced upon us. Although if we could start all over again, I think most Albertans wouldn’t let development of the oilsands run amuck the way it has. But we are in way too deep economically to turn off the oilsands taps tomorrow, even if that’s what a solid majority of us wanted to do.
Something more cautious is needed, something more like this: we should be stepping production down gradually, but decisively, until we reach a sustainable level, one that won’t do irreversible damage to individuals, communities, the climate and the natural environment. Reaching sustainability should be the focus of the conversation Albertans so badly need to have.
For my earlier blog on reducing the level of production to a more sustainable level see http://greenpartyofalberta.ca/how-much-production-from-the-oilsands-not-all-or-nothing-but-less/