Home CommentaryOpinions The many moral dilemmas of Alberta’s oil sands

The many moral dilemmas of Alberta’s oil sands

by Archives March 10, 2009

The highway from Edmonton to Fort McMurray stretches 456 kilometres through prairie grasslands and dense, northern boreal forest. At the end of this road is one of the most hotly debated energy sources on the planet, and the temperature just got cranked up. In the March 2009 issue of National Geographic there are 20 pages of haunting photos and sobering facts about the current effects and looming risks presented by the oil sands developments.
Second only to Saudi Arabia, the Alberta oil sands are one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but they come with a serious price tag. Extracting crude oil from the bitumen solids emits upwards of 388 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions, three times that of conventional oil. Greenpeace calls Alberta’s oil reserve the “World’s Dirtiest Oil.”
Federal environment minister Jim Prentice was quick in responding to the National Geographic article with well-rehearsed claims that the answer is “investments in technology.” He echoed that sentiment again in Washington last week when the United States and Canada announced they would be pursuing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as the key factor in fighting climate change. Unfortunately for Prentice, CCS as it exists today, while 90 per cent effective with regards to coal-fired electricity, is only 10 per cent effective when utilized with bitumen extraction.
While the problems associated with greenhouse gas emissions are well known to most Canadians, there is another spectre looming the mists around Fort McMurray. The process associated with mining and upgrading bitumen leaves vast lakes of a toxic soup called tailing ponds. Just under a year ago around 500 ducks died when they landed in this mix of hydrocarbons, clay and particulate matter, causing a brief outcry from environmental groups and the federal government. As a result the provincial government called on oil sands companies to reduce fine particles in tailing liquids 50 per cent by 2012, but no real progress has been seen. The really frightening part is that many of these tailing ponds border on the Athabasca River, which feeds into one of Canada’s largest and most diverse bodies of fresh water, Great Slave Lake. Not to mention the numerous aboriginal groups, towns and cities downstream from the development that rely on the Athabasca for fresh water.
The danger these ponds pose is very real. On Dec. 22, 2008 a dike broke at a tailing pond at TVA’s Kingston coal-fired power plant in Tennessee spilling around 2.6 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash across the surrounding country and into the Emory River. This spill was over 48 times the volume of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but got next to no mainstream media coverage.
The title of the National Geographic article is “Scraping Bottom,” and that seems exactly what Canada’s federal leaders are content to do when it comes to environmental policy. Michael Ignatieff downplayed the article, and the dangers that the oil sands pose, claiming “National Geographic isn’t going to teach me any lessons about the oil sands” and touting job creation and profit as of more importance.
He appears to be casting off any remnants of Stephane Dion’s influence on the party and moving to court new voters to his camp. It should come as no surprise that this shift in Liberal environmental policy comes while Ignatieff was on a whirlwind tour of small rural towns trying to drum up support in traditional Conservative regions.
The Prime minister’s office is still clinging to the belief that CCS and other technology will be some sort of magic bullet for climate change. With under five per cent of the recent federal budget geared at environmental projects, the commitment seems lacklustre at best. On top of all this the Alberta government announced on Tuesday that $1.5 billion of stimulus money will be given to oil companies to increase petroleum production over the next year.
As one of Canada’s leading industries in these troubled economic times it appears that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that more stimulus is on its way. This spending is fuelled by our petroleum thirsty society – without current levels of consumption there would be no financial incentive behind such an expensive and detrimental process.
We need to start asking ourselves just how far we are willing to take this, how far can we push the planet to keep our wants satisfied? The oil sands impact goes beyond simply climate change, the impacts of mass deforestation and water pollution have been given little impetus in the political realm, but carry their own grab bag of dangers.
While no one can deny the economic benefits of the oil sands, it’s becoming more difficult to ignore the ecological, social and personal stress they put on our country and the rest of the world. A choice needs to be made, continue on our current road of exploitation and the pursuit of profit or become a world leader when it comes to the positive changes that our planet needs? In the end it is up to us.

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