Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Celebrity activism often oily

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Alberta's oilsands are an ugly blight, a scar on the land and the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada. The mining operations to extract the thick bitumen that is converted into crude oil has also been linked to the exploitation of aboriginals, environmental hazards, the death of wildlife and even cancer.

That's one side of the story, although many of the facts are disputed.

On the flip side, Alberta's oil lands contain the third-largest reserves of oil in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, some 170 billion barrels buried in the sand. More than 10 per cent of Alberta's workforce, including nearly 2,000 aboriginals, are directly employed in the oil and gas extraction sector.

Royalties from the oilsands alone were worth $3.56 billion last year.

The benefits are spread across Canada, particularly Ontario, where some 500 firms have provided services, technologies and products worth billions of dollars, supporting thousands of jobs.

Aboriginal companies earned more than $6 billion supporting the oil industry from 2002 to 2011.

These are just a few of the good-news stories, which, like the negative narratives, are also subject to debate and interpretation. Opponents of the oilsands, for example, point to the cyclical nature of the oil industry and say Alberta's race to riches could drag down all of Canada when the boom collapses, as it always does.

The simple facts, however, are these: Canada is a resource-rich country that needs to develop and export its products. Surface mining for oil is a dirty business, but it won't last forever and damaged land will eventually be reclaimed.

Much of it already has been, although not at a pace that satisfies environmentalists, who believe nothing can compensate for the immediate damage.

Some aboriginals have been fighting the Alberta government in court over damage to land, but thousands more also realize their own prosperity depends on shaking hands with oil executives.

The balance of truth and virtue is hard to weigh under such enormous competing interests, which is why it is important that institutions, such as the Conference Board of Canada, have lent their credibility to studying the various issues.

Less helpful, however, are the fly-in celebrities who land in Alberta as avatars for a knee-jerk environmental movement.

The latest example of celebrity activism was delivered recently by rock 'n' roll icon Neil Young. He may have a heart of gold, but he showed poor judgment in comparing the oilsands to the devastation at Hiroshima in 1945.

Some 80,000 people were killed instantly in Hiroshima, while 70,000 were injured, in the atomic blast.

It was not just a ridiculous comparison and lazy metaphor, but an insult to the victims and survivors of one of the worst man-made disasters in history.

People like Mr. Young are not going to cap the oil industry in Alberta with empty shibboleths.

What's really needed is a discussion about sustainability and the pace of growth, fair compensation for affected communities and new technologies that can reduce the harmful effects of oil mining while allowing a vital industry to operate in everyone's interest.

Like rock'n'roll, the oil industry isn't going away and nor is the demand.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2014 A8

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