Much of the debate over production of the Alberta oilsands is highly polarized. Those who are pro-development argue that whatever problems may exist are in the process of being solved. Those who are not so enthusiastic about the oilsands argue that all development should stop — preferably immediately.
Although it is unlikely many people hold such an extreme positions, clearly there are proponents for each view.
But responsible public policy must steer clear of this false, all-or-nothing dichotomy and follow a sensible, alternative path, one which would require production rates to gradually decrease to sustainable levels.
Industry denials notwithstanding, there are many significant problems with oilsands production, including:
l intensive greenhouse gas emissions;
l the tiny amount of disrupted land that has been reclaimed;
l water contamination, for example, by arsenic and lead;
l the huge amounts of water being consumed by production;
l air pollution causing acidic deposits;
l aboriginal subsistence and the violation of other treaty rights;
l the loss of boreal forest;
l the reduction in biodiversity, and;
l significant social disruption throughout Alberta.
In light of these and other problems — recently, for example, it was reported that mercury, a neurotoxin, is accumulating around oilsands sites at concentrations 16 times background levels — the present policy of letting production rates increase willy-nilly is clearly wrong-headed and the unavoidable conclusion is that oilsands production should be slowed.
But to what level? While this would have to be determined scientifically, the touchstone is clear — sustainability, defined by the 1987 report of the Bruntland Commission on Environment and Development as development that leaves future generations no worse off than are we are. Of course, future generations won’t have the non-renewable resources we have consumed, but if what we do is otherwise sustainable, a broad range of resource options will still be available to them.
But awareness of climate change has given rise to a more urgent sense of sustainability: if we don’t significantly reduce the amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the world may quickly become an uninhabitable place. Sustainability is now not just a matter of future generations. The horrors of climate change are directly before us, illustrated by the catastrophic floods in southwestern Alberta, terrifying wildfires in Australia and extreme typhoons in the Philippines.
Some well-informed critics of current policy have suggested that production at one-third present levels might be sustainable.
Such an estimate can be only very rough at this point, but it gives some idea of how far off the sustainability mark we currently are.
How fast should rates be reduced? Turning the tap completely off tomorrow, even if this was possible, is not the answer — the Alberta economy would be badly damaged by such a drastic move.
While achieving sustainability is key, sustainability is about more than the physical environment. It also has social dimensions, including maintaining as healthy an employment climate as is compatible with other goals. So the rate of development should be reduced decisively but gradually.
How? Serious environmental enforcement would probably achieve much of the desired result. If industry had to pay the cost of sustainable production processes, no doubt production would slow. And if regulators issued stop-work orders when regulations were breached — something that almost never happens under current policy — production rates would be reduced.
We are where we are in Alberta —heavily dependent economically on the oilsands — as a result of unwise public policy and lack of environmental enforcement. But whatever the mistakes of the past, Albertans now need to have an open, honest conversation about how to deal effectively with the profoundly unsustainable situation we find ourselves in.
The resources are ours and it is our business to decide how they are developed.
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and leader of the Green Party of Alberta. This column was supplied by Troy Media (www.troymedia.com).