CALGARY — With the pace of oilsands development in Alberta slowed to a trickle, governments are uniquely situated to take a sober second look at environmental policies before another boom sweeps the opportunity away, say environmentalists.
“I think that the slowdown we’re experiencing now is an opportunity for us to take that step back and say do we have it right?” said Lindsay Telfer, prairie director of the Sierra Club.
As the economy heads south around the globe, energy prices have followed suit, causing the rocketing pace of development in the oilsands to stall.
Most of the more than $80 billion in projects planned to help process raw bitumen from the oilsands at the massive “Upgrader Alley” near Edmonton have been delayed indefinitely.
The Canadian Energy Research Institute suggested last month that oilsands developers are expected to cut project spending by $97 billion — turning the oil rush into an “oil slumber.”
This is the time to act, said Matt Price, project manager with Environmental Defence.
“There should be lots of time to think now because the pace isn’t so frenetic, the regulators are just busy basically approving projects. Now it’s time for the regulator to say, ‘how should we approve projects in the future?’ ”
Environmentalists see a backlog of issues that haven’t been addressed in the oilsands.
While the Alberta government has made some minor changes to regulations governing the tailings ponds that hold the sludgy waste from the projects, it hasn’t moved on designating land as protected or examining toxins and human health concerns, said Price.
Environmentalists are also still waiting for a plan to deal with the cumulative effects of all the development and say the government needs to set a firm cap on carbon emissions.
Many environmental groups have been calling for years for a moratorium on new oilsands projects until these concerns are dealt with.
“I think we have a lot of concerns that the message right now is, ‘oh, don’t worry, the market’s fixing it. You’ve got your slowdown,”’ said Telfer.
“It wasn’t the slowdown in and of itself that we wanted, we needed to ensure that environmental regulations are in place to guide development appropriately.”
Ogho Ikhalo, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, said the government is constantly updating its environmental policies and that has not changed in any way due to the slowdown.
The sagging economy might actually make environmental reforms much less likely to happen, said Andrew Leach, a University of Alberta energy and environment professor.
“If the government attempted at this point to introduce strong environmental policy that would impose costs on companies, I think you’d hear a significant outcry saying this is going to cost investment, this is going to cost jobs,” Leach said.