August 23, 2007

Cleaning Alberta's Tar Babies

Alberta is trying to clean tar babies:
Province's former Premier and a travelling journalist speak out about the tar sands.

Chris Arsenault
Published Thursday August 23rd, 2007

Everything seemed fine and dandy at the annual Council of the Federation meeting between Canada's ten Premiers and territorial leaders held recently in sunny Moncton. Nobody spoke too honestly with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach about his province's destructive pipe dreams and the environmental devastation caused by the tar sands oil development.

But this environmental détente among provincial politicians won't last, according to Alberta's former Premier Peter Lougheed, who predicts the coming row over the tar sands will be "10 times greater" than federal-provincial conflicts of the past, like the National Energy Plan of the 1980s.

"The government of Alberta, with its acceleration of oil sands operations, will in my judgment be seen as the major villain in all of this in the eyes of the public across Canada," Lougheed told members of the Canadian Bar Association during their annual convention in Calgary. "National unity will be threatened if the court upholds federal environmental legislation and it causes major damage to the Alberta oil sands and our economy," said Lougheed.

"I don't think anyone who hasn't seen it realizes just how utterly huge the tar sands are," said Dru Oja Jay, the former editor of The Argosy at Mount Allison University, who just returned from northern Alberta after a month long fact-finding mission. "An area about the size of Florida is going to be turned into a moonscape by the project," said Jay in an interview.

About 82,000 acres of forest and wetlands have been cleared or otherwise disturbed since development of oil sands began in the late 1960s, according to the New York Times.

In 1995, government and industry set a goal of producing one million barrels of oil per day from the tar sands by 2020; this goal was surpassed in 2004, after the disastrous invasion of Iraq sent world oil prices above $70 a barrel. The new goal is now five million barrels per day by 2030. If this goal is achieved, the tar sands alone will account for half of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

"Lougheed is actually ahead of many environmental groups in calling for a moratorium on tar sands development," said Jay, who hopes the ex-Premier is correct about a coming showdown between Alberta and the rest of us.

Because of the tar sands, Canada was the top supplier of crude oil to the United States last year, providing more than 16 per cent of U.S. imports, according to the Washington Post.

"American companies get the profits from the sales since much of the oil and gas sector is American owned," wrote columnist Duncan Cameron. "When world oil prices rise, foreign-owned companies capture the gain, and take the profits out of the country. Neither the provinces nor the federal government has made any attempt to tax the windfall profits."

In his northern travels, Jay, who is currently the editor of the Dominion newspaper, interviewed aboriginal elders and oil workers in Fort Mackay and Fort Chippewan, two First Nations communities in the middle of the oil sands. "People who for centuries depended on the land can no longer eat any fish from the Athabasca river; anything near tar sands it totally off limits for eating.

"Even among oil sands workers themselves, it's hard to find anyone really in support of what's going on," said Jay.

While former Premier Peter Lougheed may be correct in predicting a federal-provincial or inter-provincial showdown over the rapid pace of oil sands development,

Jay thinks "there are no forces in play which could stop it [tar sands development] right now."

"But," says Jay "there is a massive contradiction taking place. Everyday the newspapers are talking about the new green Canadians, yet we are poisoning this entire area."

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