Lately I’ve been reading Saboteurs, the true story of Wiebo Ludwig and his aggressive protest against the Alberta oil industry’s encroachment on his family’s subsistence lifestyle in the late 1980s.
In the book, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk details the experiences of those living in the community of Peace River.
Many of them live mere metres away from sour gas wells that emit stinky sulphur and toxic hydrogen sulphide. They are forced to endure so much flaring (when gas is lit and burned away to access the oil underneath) that residents have forgotten what darkness looks like.
The trees in Peace River are dying.
The people suffer skin rashes, cancers, miscarriages, headaches and nausea. Stillborn livestock is a regular sight.
Ludwig’s grandson Abel Ryan was also born dead, with no bones in his head and skin that peeled at the touch.
Despite this, Albertans, some of them sick and suffering just like those in Peace River, supported the industry like it the province’s religion.
Environmental experts visiting from elsewhere in Canada and the United States said they had never encountered a more blind oil-loving place than Alberta.
Nikiforuk’s book was enough to make me fear oil — as much its toxic effects as what the industry and the government are willing to call “normal” in the name of the almighty buck.
So it is with more than a little cynicism that I consider Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s statement last week in Washington that the oil sands are harmless.
The notion that oil-sands production comes at too high an environmental cost is a “myth,” Stelmach told Washington.
He is desperate for the United States to buy Alberta oil mined from its oil sands, so he’s racking up the rhetoric.
US federal standards won’t accept the oil as it is produced now.
The tar sands use vast amounts of water and land, and emit tons of greenhouse gases. And Canada plans to triple production by 2016.
While Stelmach went to Washington, the Pembina Institute and World Wildlife Fund was busy printing out a joint report card that gave the oil sands failing grades.
“The poor environmental performance reflects badly on the oil-sands mining companies, which include the largest and most profitable major oil companies in the world,” writes Rob Powell of WWF Canada.
“These companies have both the expertise and the resources to do better.”
In the report, Under-Mining the Environment, The Oil Sands Report Card, nine out of Alberta’s 10 operating, approved and applied-for oil-sands mines failed.
None of the companies had water reduction strategies, despite water use being one of the biggest criticisms of oil-sands production.
And despite over 40 years of development, not a single hectare of land has been certified as reclaimed under government of Alberta guidelines, the report notes.
Stelmach says new technology, like carbon dioxide sequestration, will make the oil sands greener.
“I’m confident that by the time the regulations are put in place, we will meet or exceed the regulations that are put in place by the United States,” Stelmach told Washington.
But his main argument in support of the sands is that the world needs oil — and besides, everyone else is polluting, why not Alberta?
“Even if we’re to shut it down completely and not export the 1.25-million barrels to the United States, where would the oil come from?” Stelmach asked.
“And if it be shut down, it’s one-tenth of one per cent (of global carbon-dioxide emissions).”
He also didn’t shy away from fear mongering.
Slowing oil-sands production could jeopardize energy security in the US at a time when Asian markets are clamouring for oil, he told the American audience.
Alberta is proud of its standing as this country’s nouveau-rich province and never shuns an opportunity to flaunt the fact that it doesn’t need Canada, especially when it has the US.
Oil has put Alberta on top, and so its most lucrative reserve must be protected at all costs.
“Second only to the Saudi Arabia reserves, Alberta’s oil-sands deposits were described by Time Magazine as ‘Canada’s greatest buried energy treasure,’ and ‘could satisfy the world’s demand for petroleum for the next century,’” brags Alberta Energy on its website.
The oil sands cover 140,200 square kilometres in three areas of northeastern Alberta — “an area larger than the state of Florida, an area twice the size of New Brunswick, more than four and half times the size of Vancouver Island, and 26 times larger than Prince Edward Island,” the crown corporation boasts some more.
Industry investment in Alberta’s oil sands in 2006 totalled approximately $14 billion, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
And the Alberta government collected over $4 billion in royalties in the past four years.
Yet there is no end in sight for oil sands activity — only two per cent of the resource has been produced so far.
Annual production is scheduled to increase fivefold, to 5-million barrels a day by 2030.
“This degree of activity would support the development of other key industries and see Alberta become a global energy leader,” says Alberta Energy.
I fear Alberta will continue to lie and to accept lies to achieve this aim.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.