[Note: The following was first published in the March 2014 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2014 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
It amazes me how some issues get brought to the public’s attention. The tar sands have been under development for decades and the impacts of that development on the economics and environment of the province and country have been discussed by many, but often in closed circles of like-minded individuals. There never has been a real public debate where the proponents and opponents are forced to actually answer the questions raised and seek mutually agreed solutions. Instead, our governments have decided that short-term economics trumps environmental and long-term economic concerns. After all, they know best, right? So, without meaningful discussion, we have one side of the issue yelling at the other, but few connecting to hear what is being said.
Then along comes Neil Young, a Canadian rock star loved by many, but also known for his passion for causes, especially having to do with social justice. In January he began a series of concerts, organized as fund-raisers for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) legal defence fund to finance the ACFN’s court challenges to oil-sand developments on or near their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Prior to his first concert in Toronto, Young held a press conference where he compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima. Now Young is noted for not holding back his opinions and he obviously did not have a news media professional vet his remarks before he stated them. So as would be expected, proponents of the oil sands went ballistic.
As Young clarified in a later interview, when he said “Fort McMurray” he was referring to the oil sands north of that community, not the community itself. And anyone who has been to Fort McMurray knows it’s a very vibrant community if struggling with the economic boom it finds itself in. However, the damage had been done. Or had it?
Anyone who has flown over the oil-sand strip mines knows what Neil Young was talking about. The devastation of the clearing of the forest and wetlands and the stripping of the soil and overburden indeed looks very similar to the devastation that was visited on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. But of course, the comparison ends there. There has been no mass loss of human life in the oil-sand developments. However, there has been a mass loss of fish and wildlife along with the very reason First Nations communities exist in the area. Indeed, the ACFN has a very legitimate argument that the federal government has abrogated its constitutional responsibility to honour aboriginal and treaty rights when it approved these developments.
That said, Young’s Hiroshima reference was unfortunate as it allowed oil sands proponents to jump on it and ignore the rest of his statement which has yet to be adequately addressed by the petroleum industry and government. As outlined in a well written blog post by lawyer Susan Wright (“Susan on the Soapbox,”), instead of addressing Young’s and First Nations’ concerns about the environment and treaty issues, the government and oil companies made statements about the need to get the oil out of the ground and to market as quickly as possible and the importance to the economy of the jobs created. Everyone’s talking, no one’s listening.
The problem for the government and the oil industry is they do not have answers to Young’s concerns. You realize this when they resort to personal attacks complaining about how Young has to use fossil energy to get to his concerts, etc. (even though Young did a lot to reduce that use). Everyone has to use fossil fuels to do just about anything these days. And yes, we understand petroleum is used to make all kinds of plastics and other products. We get it! There will be a petroleum market for quite a while yet. But so what? The mining and extraction of oil from those sands is causing irreversible environmental, health and social damage, and it need not be so. Why were these issues not addressed before our governments rushed to approve new oil-sands projects?
On the other side of the argument, opponents of oil-sand development have been just as intransigent in their arguments. For example, calling for the complete shutdown of oil sand production just isn’t going to happen. Yes, we are going to pay a heavy price for that production, but tars sands oil is going to flow one way or another for the foreseeable future. What is needed is for everyone to climb off their podiums and sit down and actually work out solutions. However, it may be too late for that.
When the new oil sands projects were approved, our governments were warned there would be consequences if the environmental and First Nations’ issues were not addressed. And those consequences are just starting to come home to roost. Of immediate concern is just how the increased bitumen production is going to get to market. Ten years ago, building another pipeline down to the gulf coast refineries would have been a walk-in-the-park; but not today. Because our governments decided to shill for the petroleum companies, fail to meet greenhouse gas targets, ignore or cover-up environmental and health data, and remove environmental safeguards, suddenly any discussion of oil sands becomes toxic. What the U.S. government would have approved ten years ago is no longer a slam-dunk. Indeed, in the intervening years, the U.S. has found other sources of domestic oil, and the argument it needs Alberta oil doesn’t fly so well any more.
As well, opposition to the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline route to the west coast to transport the bitumen would have hardly raised an eyebrow a few years ago. Not today. Although the route is probably the safest and least destructive of the west coast options, you can bet it will be resisted at everyone turn.
And then there is the Northern Gateway pipeline project that would cross relatively virgin Canadian wilderness, and indeed is the worst route to the coast. Because of our governments’ refusal to address issues, it too will be tied up for years in courts and obstruction. All of which will continue to put the spotlight of the world on how Canada protects its environment and natural resources.
Of longer term concerns are the court challenges to these projects by First Nations and environmental groups. All would be unnecessary if the Alberta and federal governments had early-on honoured their responsibilities as stewards of our land, sat down with First Nations, concerned groups and scientists and worked out solutions before the projects were approved. By rushing to please what appears to be every whim of the petroleum industry, these governments have put us all at grievous risk from both the environment and the economy. As the rest of the world watches, and develops alternative sources of energy, including cheaper and cleaner fossil fuels, the market for our very costly bitumen will dry-up.
When it all comes to a screeching halt, and the economic boom ends, don’t blame the petroleum companies, First Nations or the environmental movement; they were just doing what they had to do. Blame the Redford and Harper governments; they’re the ones who abandoned their responsibilities and they didn’t have to.