We need a cleanup plan

That gasping sound you hear? It’s the provincial government coming up for air after being dogpiled by environmentalists over Alberta’s oilsands.

That gasping sound you hear?

It’s the provincial government coming up for air after being dogpiled by environmentalists over Alberta’s oilsands.

And what a pile of critics it has become. What began with local environmentalists and organizations, such as the Pembina Institute, has snowballed to include Greenpeace, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, the Dene Nation, Assembly of First Nations, several U.S. retail chains, Audubon Magazine and the mayors of major U.S. cities.

Avatar director James Cameron was the latest critic to fling himself onto the pile, saying the oilsands were a “black eye” on Canada’s environmental reputation.

The province’s response to the mounting criticism has been, in the words of one commentator, a public relations trainwreck.

And Albertans know it. An Angus Reid poll in December suggested half of us were disappointed with the provincial and federal governments’ defence of the oilsands.

At times pleading and at others confrontational, that defence has included a campaign to rebrand the province as a responsible developer.

Failing that, the province has tried deflecting attention from the oilsands by pointing out how oil produced in other parts of the world, such as California, Venezuela and Nigeria, leave a larger carbon footprint than oil processed from bitumen mined in Alberta.

In Cameron’s case, Premier Stelmach engaged him head on, extending an invitation to the film director to take a canoe trip down the Athabasca River to see the bands of oilsands along the bank for himself.

Then again, the oilsand’s critics also invited Cameron to visit the region, and it’s all but certain the director wouldn’t find Pandora.

Pressure on the provincial government has eased, at least momentarily. The world’s attention has shifted to the Gulf of Mexico, where crews are scrambling to contain a massive oil spill.

The oil is gushing into the gulf from the remnants of Deepwater Horizon, a rig that exploded and sank late last month about 65 km off the Louisiana coast. Officials estimate about 5,000 barrels of oil are coming up from the seabed daily. If the well cannot be closed, almost 100,000 barrels of oil, or 4.2 million gallons, could spill into the gulf.

While U.S. officials grapple with a disaster that could eclipse even the Exxon Valdez, Albertans would be well served if their government used this time to re-examine its approach to the oilsands.

Alberta’s problem lies not with its PR department but that it wears the tar on its sleeve for all to see. Spin amounts to little when confronted with graphic images of hundreds of dead or dying ducks, beak-deep in sticky tar. Nor can it hide the vast lakes of toxic tailings, which could be leaking 11 million litres of contaminated water into the environment daily, according to a conservative estimate by Environment Defense.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice made it clear in February that outside criticism of Alberta’s oilsands would continue unless there was a constant effort to improve their environmental impact.

What we need from the provincial government and energy companies is substantive action to clean up the mess in our own backyard, not more hot air.

Unless that happens, it’s only a matter of time before the province suffocates under the weight of its oilsands critics.

Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.