Canada's oil sands – navigating the rhetoric

By Guest Author 12/01/2011

by Eloise Gibson

It’s a little-known fact in these parts that Canada has the second-biggest proven crude oil reserves in the world.

Rather than gushing straight from a well, the thick oil is locked in a molasses-like mixture with sand, clay and water.

The goo is mined and then purified using a process that is heavy on greenhouse emissions, energy and water use, leaving behind barren land and toxic tailings ponds.

All this makes oil sands mining Canada’s thorniest environmental issue. But it is also the backbone of the country’s booming $110-billion oil industry — and a major supplier to the United States.

oilsandSo it was a blow to Canadian PR when a report came out suggesting Canada has been doing a pretty poor job of keeping an eye on mining’s environmental and human effects.

A major review out last month from the Royal Society of Canada castigated both the Canadian and provincial Alberta governments for letting development run ahead of their ability to monitor it.

’The environmental regulatory capacity of the Alberta and Canadian Governments does not appear to have kept pace with the rapid expansion of the oil sands industry over the past decade. The environmental impact assessment process relied upon by decision makers to determine whether projects are in the public interest has serious deficiencies,’ says the summary of findings by seven Royal Society-appointed experts.

The ticking-off continues elsewhere in the document: ’These agencies need to seriously consider whether they have and can maintain the specialised technical expertise needed to regulate industrial development of this scope and sophistication.’

The panel hints that governments may have been more focussed on encouraging oil sands development (an expensive and technical endeavour) than on environmental management or orderly development.

’The people of Alberta must be able to have confidence that… regulatory approval decisions are being made by highly skilled, senior technical experts based strictly on the merits of scientific, technical and economic evidence free of political interference,’ it says.

The impression is that science has taken a back seat to politics.

The report doesn’t question, or even address, the enormous economic benefits of mining in the Athabasca River region, which pays the Alberta government alone $3 billion a year.

But it says community health is generally worse in booming oil sands towns, due to overwhelming pressure on social services.

The mammoth review was undertaken to help Canadians make sense of a barrage of pro- and anti-mining rhetoric, after a year in which deformed fish were paraded before politicians, a mining company was fined for the deaths of 1600 birds, and Avatar director James Cameron swooped in to campaign against the mines.

The criticisms are not reserved for governments – the panel shoots down claims in the media of a link between oil sands and raised cancer rates, saying there is no reliable evidence of a connection.

You could almost hear the cheers coming from Alberta when the report rubbished the claim – sometimes made by mining’s opponents – that oil sands are the dirtiest industry in the world. It concluded the process of extracting bitumen was not even Canada’s biggest creator of air pollution, water pollution or greenhouse gases, let alone the world’s.

But criticisms of government oversight tended to overshadow the good news. The report threatens to rattle the sales pitch Canada has been giving its buyer the United States.

The Harper government has been selling its oil as ethically superior to oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, partly because of Canada’s stricter environmental rules.

Meanwhile another independent report out the same month (this one sponsored by the federal government) criticised regulators for their slack oversight of industry-funded monitoring of toxins in the Athabasca River.

All in all it was not surprising that before Christmas the Alberta government was promising to set up its own fix-it panel, to say what equipment and staff the province would need to provide ’world class’ monitoring and reporting.

Any improvements will take time to have an effect. There are plans to double oil sands production in the next decade, to nearly three million barrels a day. Many of those new projects are already through the environmental assessment stage — out of reach of new assessment criteria.

Eloise Gibson is the former environment reporter of the New Zealand Herald. She spent several months last year travelling in Canada.

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