On Monday September 26, people from across Canada will gather at Parliament Hill to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that will carry oil from Alberta’s oil/tar sands (O/TS) through the United States to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
I don’t have particularly strong feelings about this pipeline compared to, say, the Trans Mountain line that is already taking oil across the Rocky Mountains and under the Fraser River to Vancouver and Washington State, or the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would run further north from Alberta to the BC coast to fill oil tankers plying to and from Asian markets.
Nor am I completely opposed to oil and other conventional energy supplies: we heat our house with natural gas, my co-op vehicle runs on gasoline and while I am willing to invest my money in companies that produce energy via wind and solar power, those sources of energy are not plentiful enough today to replace oil, gas, hydroelectric and nuclear sources and run Canada’s homes, cars and businesses.
But I do think that the O/TS are being exploited carelessly, and that this must change, particularly since only a tiny fraction of its potential has been developed to date.
It is estimated that Alberta’s O/TS represent the second largest oil field in the world, behind only Saudi Arabia. (British Petroleum report, 2009).
Because of the size of the O/TS and their impact on Canada’s people, economy and environment – and the impact beyond this country – I’ve tried to learn at least the basics about this issue. Knowing it has become a hot button topic in Canada and beyond, and that in many cases rhetoric is substituting for verified information, I’ve tried to gather material from a range of sources.
The following points are taken from a December 2010 report by the Royal Society of Canada, a group that I would hazard to label middle-of-the-road, if not conservative; they raise enough questions to convince me that further development of the oil sands must be held back until some of the concerns can be answered.
(Except where marked by quotation marks, I am paraphrasing from the brief version of the report’s executive summary. All bold emphasis is mine).
• The elevated rate of certain cancers reported among residents of Fort Chipewyan (a small town located 250 km downstream from O/TS development) – there is no credible evidence that cancer caused but “more monitoring is needed”;
• Water supply – current industrial use does not threaten the Athabasca River system if the Water Management Framework is fully implemented and enforced;
• Regional water quality and groundwater quantity – current oil patch activities are not a current threat to water quality; the “cumulative impact on groundwater quantity and quality has not been assessed”;
• Tailings pond operation and reclamation – the inventory of ponds is growing despite emerging technologies; “reclamation and management options for wet landscapes derived from tailings ponds have been researched but are not adequately demonstrated”;
• Air quality in the region – there have been “minimal impacts” to date; control of NOx [nitrous oxide] emissions and regional acidification remain valid concerns;
• Greenhouse gas emissions – progress has been made, “nonetheless increasing GHG emissions from growing bitumen production creates a major challenge for Canada to meet our international commitments for overall GHG reduction that current technology options do not resolve”;
• Environmental regulatory performance – The environmental regulatory capacity of the Alberta and Canadian governments “does not appear to have kept pace with the rapid expansion of the oil sands industry over the past decade. The EIA [environmental impact assessment] process relied upon by decision-makers to determine whether proposed projects are in the public interest has serious deficiencies in relation to international best practice. Environmental data access for cumulative impact assessment needs to improve.”
For me, this last point is most damning: Canada’s governments are failing their responsibility to the people of Alberta, and beyond, and trying to play catch up to the profit-oriented energy industry.
Canada is one of the wealthiest, most developed countries in the world, and historically admired for its progressive stance on environmental and social issues. We can, and should, do better.