Vancouver Sun and Canada West Foundation Are Wrong About Tar Sands; Regulation Is Critical For Healthy Economy

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Barbara Yaffe’s outrageous opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun argues that environmentalists ought to shift their focus in their rallying calls against the tar sands. Yesterday, the Pembina Institute, Equiterre and Environmental Defence made a united call to the Harper government to start being more stringent in its enforcement of environmental laws, and to do more to respect aboriginal treaty rights in Canada’s tar sands. 

The environmentalists’ report, Duty calls: Federal Responsibility in Canada’s Oilsands aptly argues that filthy tar sands development is on track to derail any and all of Ottawa’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Duty Calls outlines Ottawa’s responsbility for environmental management in the oil sands and explores what’s at stake if Ottawa continues to neglect this responsibility.  

Our political leaders have been more talk than walk in terms of managing the tar sands, but the Vancouver Sun’s Yaffe argues that politicians must have their reasons. She refers to William Kimber of the Alberta-based Canada West Foundation, who argues that, as filthy as the Fort McMurray enterprise is, we can’t dispute that it’s fuelling the economy. It’s the age-old, foolish ‘economy vs. environment’ positioning that is a non-starter when you consider that there would be no economy without the value of environmental resources.

What the Vancouver Sun fails to note is that the ongoing deregulation of the tar sands benefits Big Oil more than the residents of Alberta or the environment, and that’s a serious problem in the long term, both for the environment and the economy. Failing to regulate the tar sands leaves the federal government exposed to ongoing and sustained legal challenges, and exposes the oil sands industry to tougher environmental restrictions in the international marketplace. Continued federal absence leaves Canadians vulnerable to the economic uncertainty resulting from tying the value of the Canadian dollar to the price of oil.

The Vancouver Sun also fails to highlight the tar sands’ flagrant use of water, the toxic tailings ponds, and their role as the highest source of greenhouse gases in Canada. And these woes are only going to increase. According to the report, projects that have already been approved will see tar sands production increase to 4 million barrels a day. If all projects currently in the approval process proceed, we’ll be looking at nearly twice that.

Who is the Canada West Foundation anyways? The non-profit think tank focuses on consumer measures to curb fossil fuel consumption as opposed to regulating the industry.  Putting the onus of the dirty tar sands development in the hands of people where they are powerless is not a solution. The Canada West Foundation has been preaching the same spiel for a few years now. In an earlier Globe and Mail piece, Roger Gibbons of the Canada West Foundation argued that final-emitter regulations would be “a dangerous overall strategy for Alberta to pursue.” Such a move, he said, would “really paint a target on the provincial energy sector. We need people to realize that there has to be some large public response rather than focusing on the big emitters.”

I take the most offence with Yaffa’s comment that environmentalists, citizens, and those concerned about the tarsands and the environment should focus more of their effort on consumers, helping people reduce their fossil fuel consumption so that, over time, demand for oil products is driven down. Though we absolutely have to address personal consumption and begin to lessen the fossil fuel choke-hold, dirty industry must be regulated or we will not get to the root of the problem. 

Yaffa also makes no mention of how to ease the pain of this damaging industry on the First Nations directly implicated in it. Consumer-based efforts alone will not redress the devastating impacts on their communities. 

That environmentalists and citizens concerned about the environment and Alberta’s tar sands need to be ‘less flashy’ in their approaches to lobby politicians is pretty difficult with the size and magnitude of the tar sands. If only they couldn’t be seen from outer space, we might forget about them and focus on something else. That’s just not going to happen.

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