How much production from the oilsands? Not all-or-nothing, but less

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 maleenhancementmax 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/

Comments 11

  • Good thinking. Arguing that simply enforcing requirements for industry to pay for violations of regulations that already exist and agreements that have already been made would slow oilsands production naturally makes the possibility of gradual reduction plausible.

  • It would make sense that the reduction of raw oil production would also increase interest in alternative energy development and the price of recyclable plastics, therefore bolstering the recycling industry. A good read!

  • Agreed. We are where we are as a result of unwise policy development. Those who got us into this mess don’t have the wherewithal to get us out of it, nor do they want to. Time to replace them with MLAs who are prepared to have an honest conversation with ALL stakeholders to find the right balance between environmental and economic sustainability. 2016 is two years away…until then the suggestion that we enforce the existing environmental laws makes perfect sense.

  • The need for massive tar sands production could be reduced by promoting other more renewable and sustainable power sources such as solar and more wind electricity generation, and reducing the demand for power by re-insulating buildings and making them much more efficient. Reduce demand for oil by promoting efficient use of fuel by better public transportation (bus, train, shared-use economical cars, energy efficient and prolific taxis). We also need to find a way to process Alberta bitumen into more usable products *before* transporting them to other users, so the dangers of bitumen in pipes or on the oceans is *drastically* reduced. This also will increase local Alberta employment. However the need for better environmental performance by this industry is paramount; present practices are taking us back to the worst excesses of the industrial revolution. two centuries ago.

  • Great article Janet!

    For too long has the Green Party been externalized from the dominant political conversation here in Alberta.

    With thoughtful, balanced, and common-sense perspectives such as those explored in this essay, I am confident that the hearts and minds of Albertans from all walks of life will be speaking about and voting for the Greens in ever greater number.

    Keep up the great work!

  • The corrupt Progressive Conservative Government has created a ridiculous tar sands “rip and ship” economic structure in this province that would be very difficult to reverse without creating economic and political havoc. To create a “non havoc,” politically acceptable, “sustainable” tar sands operation model requires much greater economic value-add to the resource while reducing the output of the mining.

    For example, if tar sands mining jobs are to be reduced in Fort McMurray, then most of the people losing those jobs will require job training, economic assistance and jobs in a value-add industry within the area they live. If the jobs are not created where they are lost, housing prices will plummet, small business will go bust, governments will loses their tax base and all sorts of political and economic havoc will occur. Proper planning, unlike what Conservatives do, is critical to avoid economic havoc.

    Furthermore, the foreign dominated Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and other business corporations will rebel because of what they would see as the Government interfering in the “markets.” They will suggest Alberta is not a good place to invest if tar sands production is set at a more sustainable rate. So the Government would be unable to count on economic value-add investment by private corporations- particularly foreign corporations.

    This is where the provincial government may have to step in and do some heavy investing in the resource- like what occurs in other countries around the world. The largest oil companies in the world are owned by governments and there is no reason why the Alberta Government could not have an oil company being that we, the people, own the 3rd largest deposit of oil in the world. (remember that Medicine Hat has its own natural gas company that operates successfully, so there is no reason that could not be repeated at the Provincial level). Hard core Greens may not like that thought though as some would suggest that would distract us from investing in alternative energy. Which is likely true in part although returns on investment or surpluses could be put into developing alternative energy sources- which is not occurring in any significant way now by the current government.

    You can see how complicated it is to change the stupid “rip and ship” tar sands economic model developed by the “non red green” Tory Conservatives. Major economic changes can be done successfully though, as many other countries have proven. Knowledge and planning will be the key to sustainability. Our democracy will demand more intelligence to create a better more sustainable economic structure within the province.

    Make way for a more profitable Alberta Oil Patch to benefit all Albertans.
    Vote out Conservatives.

    Note: the above is one idea and is not necessarily the only economic option for less “rippin’ and shippin’ of the tar sands resource.

    • According to the Calgary Herald, Jan.8/14, page D4, oil companies in the USA are banned from exporting crude oil. The Americans, unlike Canadians, are not dumb enough to export the raw cheap resource. There is an lesson for Canada here.

  • Alberta Greens are walking a tight rope in regards to the oil sands. On one hand most foreign edited literature calls for a complete shutdown of the oil sands. Sensible Albertans understand that this isn’t feasible. There needs to be political support and middle ground. This is a compromising platform I am glad we have adopted. Anything less would alienate us from the majority of voters. Thanks Janet

  • […] On this last point, Janet Keeping, Leader of the provincial Green Party of Alberta wrote a blog just last week, asking, “How much production from the oilsands? Not all-or-nothing, but less“. […]

  • I believe it can be solved by shareholder action to force changes. Have oil & gas focus on product margin instead of volume.

    Large shareholders are already forcing this change but more shareholders could apply more pressure. This involves having the shareholders fire the current directors of companies and/or holding them accountable. This in turn fires/makes accountable the executives. This in turn changes the culture of the company. This is what is happening at Encana right now.

    This strategy is win-win b/c companies are more sustainable in up or down market. Plus, margin focuses them on doing stuff right instead of cheaping out on components and having blow-outs (volume – doing things quickly).