“Environmentalists can be divided into two camps on the issue of oilsands.”
— Robert Rapier
I first came across the writings of Rapier on theoildrum.com. Whereas a lot of us thought in 2008 that the price of oil would easily continue its trajectory past $147 per barrel, he cautioned that the higher price would first cripple the global economy, and then stabilize for a while at a lower price … which it did (for the past three years at about $90 to $100). So he’s no dummy.
And in addition to being smart, he’s diplomatic. Maybe that’s why the Canadian government invited him and a few other energy analysts and journalists to tour the tarsands last year.
The result was a series of writings, ranging from the impact of bitumen extraction on caribou herds (definitely not good), to its impact on water in the region (maybe not good).
During the tour, Rapier attended a presentation by the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based, non-profit think-tank specializing in issues relating to energy. Rapier puts the PI in one environmental camp, while he puts organizations such as Greenpeace in the other camp.
The first camp accepts that bitumen extraction will continue into the future, but thinks that it is proceeding too rapidly (like what Peter Lougheed thought in recent years).
The second camp thinks that bitumen extraction should cease completely. Rapier thinks that the first camp is more realistic.
I tend to agree.
In fact, I wrote in this column back in 2011 that when CO2 calculations are based on what actually comes out of the tailpipe of my car, the tarsands are only five per cent dirtier than the Kern River oilfield in California.
However, I also wrote as recently as this January, that we should quit spitting on Peter Lougheed’s grave and take to heart his warning about the pace of tarsands extraction.
But I digress. Just as Rapier sees the PI as a moderate voice, so must the Canadian government (or why else would they have invited it to make a presentation during the tour?).
Industry likewise trusts the PI. Or why else would big companies such as Shell and Encana pay for its consulting expertise?
PI’s role is somewhat strange, since Rapier notes that it sometimes even consults for a company that it is suing.
How better to affect change, though: advise a company to be serious about the environment and sue it, just to make sure.
But these big companies recognize that “environment” is more than just a word in the dictionary. And they also recognize that PI is the best at what it does.
So why does the Alberta government not seem to recognize the obvious?
The news came out recently that Premier Dave Hancock et al denied PI’s request (as part of a larger environmental coalition) to speak at a hearing for a possible new tarsands development by Southern Pacific Resource Corp.
They reason that PI and others are not directly affected by tarsands operations, so they shouldn’t have a say in what happens. Caribou are directly affected, but they can’t speak English, and they can’t vote Progressive Conservative, and now they can’t even count on PI to stand up for their right to exist.
The Alberta government is a bit like the emperor in the Hans Christian Anderson tale.
Each new development north of Fort McMurray is another piece of fine silk clothing … although one that future generations will see for what it is: a short-term figment which does surprisingly little for the Heritage Trust Fund, and practically nothing for the province’s long-term goal of economic diversification.
The Pembina Institute is the little boy who points out the obvious. But he can only point out the obvious if the powers that be allow him to speak.
Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Energy and Ecology website at www.evanbedford.com.