By Janet Keeping, leader, Green Party of Alberta
Much of the debate over production of the Alberta oilsands is highly polarized. Those who are pro-development argue that whatever problems may exist are in the process of being solved. So we should relax and put our trust in industry and its governmental partners. Those who are not so enthusiastic about the oilsands are often painted as wanting all development to stop – preferably immediately. Although it is unlikely many people hold such an extreme position, clearly there are many more who have sympathies in that direction.
Responsible public policy would steer clear of this false, all-or-nothing dichotomy and follow a sensible, alternative path, one which would require production rates to gradually decrease to sustainable levels.
Industry and its friends’ denials notwithstanding, there are many significant problems with oilsands production. In addition to intensive greenhouse gas emissions, some of the most important are these: only a tiny amount of disrupted land has been reclaimed; water is being contaminated, for example, by arsenic and lead; huge amounts of water are being consumed by production; air is being polluted causing acidic deposits; Aboriginal subsistence and other treaty rights are being repeatedly violated; boreal forest is being lost; biodiversity is being reduced; and significant social disruption is being caused throughout Alberta.
Every week or so brings reports of a new problem. Recently it was that mercury, a neurotoxin, is accumulating around oilsands sites at concentrations 16 times background levels.
In light of these and other problems, the present policy of letting production rates increase willy-nilly is clearly wrong-headed. But our predicament is even worse. Even if policy were changed immediately to prevent further increases, current rates are themselves indefensible because some of the damage being done is quite literally out of control. Here are some examples. The causes of the underground blowout at Cold Lake that has gone on since spring 2013 are inexplicable even to industry and government regulators. Despite repeated promises the tailings ponds would shrink, they continue to expand. That some of the damage done by oilsands production is irreparable has been acknowledged publicly, for example in the review panel’s environmental assessment of the Jackpine project.
The unavoidable conclusion is that oilsands production should be slowed.
To what level? This would have to be determined scientifically, but the touchstone is clear – sustainability. The 1987 report of the Bruntland Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable as development that leaves future generations no worse off than are we. Of course future generations won’t have the non-renewable resources we have consumed, but if what we do is otherwise sustainable, a broad range of resource options will still be available to them.
But awareness of climate change has given rise to a more urgent sense of sustainability: if we don’t significantly reduce the amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the world may quickly become an uninhabitable place. Sustainability is now not just a matter of future generations. The horrors of climate change are directly before us, illustrated by the catastrophic floods in southwestern Alberta, terrifying wildfires in Australia and extreme typhoons in the Philippines.
Some well-informed critics of current policy have suggested that production at one-third present levels might be sustainable. Such an estimate can be only very rough at this point, but it gives some idea of how far off the sustainability mark we presently are.
How fast should rates be reduced? Even if the tap could be turned completely off tomorrow, this shouldn’t be done – the Alberta economy would be badly damaged by such a drastic move. Achieving sustainability is key, but sustainability is about more than the physical environment. It also has social dimensions, including maintaining as healthy an employment climate as is compatible with other goals. So the rate of development should be reduced decisively but gradually.
How? Serious environmental enforcement would probably achieve much of the desired result. If industry had to pay the cost of sustainable production processes, no doubt production would slow. And if regulators issued stop-work orders when regulations were breached – something which almost never happens under current policy – production rates would be reduced.
We are where we are in Alberta – heavily dependent economically on the oilsands – as a result of unwise public policy and lack of environmental enforcement. But whatever the mistakes of the past, Albertans now need to have an open, honest conversation about how to deal effectively with the profoundly unsustainable situation we find ourselves in. The resources are ours and it is our business how they are developed.
We don’t have a provincial government willing to facilitate such a public conversation. But if we start working now to elect people brave enough to challenge the current way of doing things in the next election, we could.
This opinion piece was originally published, in a slightly different form, by Troy Media at http://www.troymedia.com/2014/01/07/sustainability-key-to-future-oil-sands-development/