mining the tarsands for votes

Last week Michael Ignatieff addressed a luncheon crowd at Edmonton's chamber of commerce. To no one's surprise, the Liberal Party of Canada's latest attempt at a leader leapt to the defense of Alberta's great economic engine, the tarsands. "The oilsands a

Last week Michael Ignatieff addressed a luncheon crowd at Edmonton’s chamber of commerce. To no one’s surprise, the Liberal Party of Canada’s latest attempt at a leader leapt to the defense of Alberta’s great economic engine, the tarsands.

“The oilsands are an integral part of the future of Canada,” Ignatieff told the business crowd in the capital city of a province where oil is money, and more to the point, where no oil would mean a sudden and dizzying drop from boom to bust.

Come Election Day – and even the Liberals can’t duck that day forever – it may do Ignatieff some good with the voters of Alberta if he seems to support continued development in the tarsands. But the Liberals can’t afford to drive away voters who are looking for action on global warming.

So naturally the great statesman tempered his pride – yes he used the word proud – in the world’s most famous dirty energy project with stern words about environmental responsibility. “We need to be able to stand up for the oilsands,” said Ignatieff, “and ask the oil industry to do better.”

Well sure, that ought to work. We’ll all stand up for this integral part of our future and ask the wealthiest corporations on Earth to do better. But better at what?

“These communities need to become environmentally sustainable,” says Ignatieff, “but they also need to become socially sustainable.”

It sounds wonderful, but the question arises, if the oil companies were capable of building an environmentally and socially sustainable Fort McMurray, why wouldn’t they have done it years ago and avoided all the negative publicity that inevitably attaches to environmental rapine, epidemics of rare cancers, homelessness, drug addiction and runaway crime?

The tarsands leapt to international attention this month when National Geographic ran a before-and-after photo spread of the boreal forest, with and without trees, lakes, rivers, moose, bears, birds, bees, potable water, breathable air or edible fish.

Unmoved, Ignatieff declared, “National Geographic is not going to teach me any lessons about the oilsands.”

Ignatieff’s colleagues on the Liberal-Conservative coalition didn’t learn much from the article either.

Jim Prentice, the minister in charge of preventing environmental concerns from affecting profits, told CBC News, “It’s very difficult to see the North American marketplace developing in an orderly way for energy without the oilsands being part of the equation.”

According to CBC Edmonton, each day, in the course of developing the marketplace in an orderly way, Alberta’s bitumen mines produce 1.8 billion litres of toxic waste. These are stored in massive poisonous lakes euphemistically dubbed tailings ponds. No one knows how long these ponds will exist, or how to dispose of them. Since tarsands mining began in 1967, no tailings pond has ever been reclaimed.

Along with the water, the tarsands strip mines consume 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, an amount sufficient to heat more than three million homes. The industry plans to triple production, and hence gas consumption, by 2020. Along with the energy the mines produce, they provide the Canadian market with an orderly source of five per cent of all our greenhouse gasses. One barrel of tarsands oil produces three times the carbon pollution of a barrel of conventional oil.

The tarsands are a 3,000-square-kilometre blight on the boreal forest. The giant oil companies who operate them benefit to the tune of $1.4 billion a year from their very own tax break, the accelerated capital cost allowance, a gift from Ignatieff’s Liberal predecessors.

Canadians want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We want the boreal forest to survive. Some Canadians even give a damn about aboriginal communities downstream from the tarsands. Many care about our access to the US energy market, today under threat from concerns about our dirty oil production.

There are steps we can take to address these concerns, starting with reducing our personal consumption and moving out to demanding real action from government. They don’t include voting Liberal so Ignatieff can support the tarsands, and ask industry to do better.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.