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Alberta oilsands ironies

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Peter Lougheed and David Suzuki are not two names you would normally expect to find in the same sentence, let alone on the same side of an issue. But when it comes to the Alberta oilsands, these bedfellows aren't so strange when you consider what's at stake.

The former Alberta premier loves his province. The environmentalist loves his planet. Their common ground is a slab of Alberta the size of Florida, and they both want to put the brakes on the out-of-control development of the oilsands, Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

David Suzuki, Greenpeace, the Pembina Institute and others argue that continued expansion of the oilsands will prevent Canada from meeting its international commitment under Kyoto. Stephen Harper wants to cut Canada's emissions by 20 per cent of 2006 levels by 2020, but only new oilsands developments created after 2011 would be required to implement carbon capture and storage technology under his plan. GHG emissions from oilsands would be allowed to rise.

No common ground there. Alberta oilsands operations released 23.3 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2000, 3.2 per cent of Canada's 725 MT total, according to Eco Justice. Those emissions are near the doubling point and are expected to triple by 2015. By then, oilsands developments will be the No. 1 single source of GHG emissions, generating more than all passenger cars and airplanes combined. The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that a 150,000-barrel-a-day oilsands operation wipes out the GHG savings of taking 1.35 million cars off the road.

Lougheed smartly says that the environmental effect of oilsands should be studied before more expansion is allowed. Surveys indicate that the vast majority of Albertans are greatly concerned about the effect of oilsands development on the environment.

Some of those effects are documented in horrific detail in William Marsden's 2007 book Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't seem to Care).

"When you start carpet-bombing your province with oil and gas wells, and at the same time, you've got global warming drying up the glaciers and our rivers -- you're kind of looking at a doomsday scenario," the author told Maclean's magazine.

This isn't alarmist -- it is the sound of an alarm bell going off. Thousands of hectares of the boreal forest -- a global region so adept at soaking up GHG emissions that scientists around the world have called on Canada to protect it -- have already been stripped off the Alberta map to get at the sandy oil beneath it. In the oilsands region, trucks the size of houses carry the scraped-up goo, which is then exposed to high temperatures to extract the oil, creating toxic ponds the size of lakes. Oilsands development sucks up more water than the people of Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer consume. According to Marsden, the 215.2 million cubic metres of water used annually for oilsands development will double by 2010, when he calculates that more water from the Athabasca River will be used up for oilsands development than is used by the urban population of Alberta.

Because so much energy is needed to recover and process the oil, three times the amount of greenhouse gases are created compared to traditional oil. The natural gas used by oilsands could heat 3.2 million homes.

Harper's Conservatives, and Ed Stelmach's Tories in Alberta, continue to subvert calls for drastic GHG emission reductions, pushing soft "emissions intensity" reductions and minor cuts. Lougheed may be correct in his prediction that Canada will see a ferocious constitutional showdown between the federal government's obligation to protect the environment and Alberta's right to control its resources. Already, two environmental organizations (Eco Justice and Friends of the Earth) are suing Harper for abandoning Kyoto.

But let's not forget that most of Canada's oil goes south, where there is a growing citizens' movement against oilsands development. In April, U.S. environmentalists protested a visit by Alberta Deputy Premier Ron Stevens to Washington, demanding that Canada's "dirty oil" be banned. An ad in the Capitol Hill Roll Call featured a maple leaf oozing oil. Meanwhile, Democratic leadership candidate Barack Obama has a new ad of his own, one that promises Americans he will "free" them from dependence on foreign oil.

The final irony may be that while environmentalists have complained that Canada's energy policy has been dictated by the U.S. for too long, they may find themselves bedfellows with the next U.S. administration in a bid to clean up Canada's oil industry.

Penni Mitchell is editor of Herizons magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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