Friday, July 23, 2010

Why has the BP gush not scared Canadians off of the oilsands?

The Toronto Star recently published a rather scathing article on the complacency of Canadians in light of increased US criticism of the oil industry. While the mainstream US population tends to attribute the massive oil gusher in the Gulf to BP’s poor safety record, many believe that it’s only a matter of time before American citizens begin to see that the social and ecological costs sustained by the gush ultimately represent the true cost of consuming fossil fuels. As the title of the Star article states: “As US awakens, Canada hits snooze on oil addiction”, Canada has certainly not realized this yet.

The article explains that Syncrude Canada, the biggest player in the $200 billion Alberta oil sands, displays images of forests and lakes, “as well as slick videos extolling the mining company’s wetland research and aid to native businesses”. Indeed, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) plays a big role in paying millions of dollars in advertisements denouncing environmentalist claims while promoting their environmental and social endeavors.

Shamefully, the Globe and Mail published an article written by Pierre Duhaime, President of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., a large supplier of the oil and gas sector, encouraging support of the oil sands in light of the inescapable need for energy in the future, the dwindling supply of easy access to such oil, and the contribution it represents to the Canadian economy. I find it utterly distasteful that the top Canadian newspaper granted publication of an article conveying the CEO’s views on what should or should not represent Canada’s socio-political agenda in light of the fact that his remuneration is correlated to the systemic dependence on these natural resources.

What I find particularly distasteful is Duhaime’s claim that we need the oil sands because there are few alternatives available. On the surface, one reads this and thinks: “well, that’s true. I mean perhaps the solution is to extract the oil from this sand in a way that is more sustainable so that we can reduce environmental issues and not engage in too disruptive behaviour”. There are at least two issues with this. First, there is clear evidence that the oil and gas sector, for decades, as influenced public policy to ensure the security of oil as the primary source of demand for energy. Claims that they played a role in killing the electric vehicle, while not conclusive, represent one logical strategy for an industry seeking to survive over the long term. Allowing the president of a company inextricably tied to oil to put forth this rhetoric is repugnant because of the history of political lobbying that has resulted in secured dependence on this source of energy.

Second, change is difficult. Anyone who thinks that to sustain ourselves requires slight alterations to our behaviour is ‘nuts’ and ignorant of the real challenges that lie ahead of us. Anyone with children should be thinking of this because their children (your grandchildren) will be the ones dealing with the implications of the fact that our existing generation was unable to radically change their behaviour.

But let’s get back to the issue at hand. Several articles have discussed the seemingly pervasive parallel between the gulf gush and the oil sands. The difference is that while BP’s true costs are displayed in the form of massive blotches throughout the Gulf, loss of coastal jobs, and visible and permanent ecological damage, the oilsands’ true costs are less explicit yet equally impactful when we consider the 126 million gallons of scarce fresh water a day, the contribution of the intense processes to global warming, and several forms of ecological devastation.

We’re kidding ourselves when we say that these statistics are important because we care about the environment and the Earth. We should be concerned because without the very ecosystem services that these operations degrade, we will not survive as a species. This ecosystem-human survival relationship has been expressed countless times by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment yet impressively suppressed and under-exposed to the average person. As many scientists have mentioned, the Earth will adapt to whatever we throw at it. Let’s stop pretending that we’re saving the environment. We’re trying to secure an environment that will not eat us up and spit us out as a soon to be extinct species.

While the Alberta Government uses the gush as a way to promote the oil sands, environmentalists use it as a way to illustrate the dangers of further extraction of the oil sands. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz said that "it's ironic that when the oil spill happened in the Gulf, the tar sands people were saying that it is safe". Mario Reynolds of the Pembina Institute argues that Canadians don’t really buy the ads put forth by the oil and gas industry advocating for the social, ecological, and economic benefits of the oil sands. But then why is it that Canadians are “snoozed” and support a government that believes the environmental issues clearly connected with the oil sands represent “side shows”. If anything, the BP oil spill should have woken Canadians up to the dangers of the oil sands. Our government should be finding a way to wean ourselves off our economic dependence on them. Instead, they constantly defend them as if they represent the solution to the planet’s woes…how well this parallel’s the SNC Lavalin President’s article. Embarrasingly for Canadians, American organizations and media are stepping up their campaigns against the oil sands, to which the Albertan government has aggressively responded with massive advertisements.

Should we not be concerned that the Harper government seeks counsel from the National Energy Board which excludes environmentalists, not to mention the fact that scientists rarely get a seat at the table? I’m most concerned with the fact that while everyone I speak with is against what this government is doing, 35-40% of Canadians seem to support them in the polls. Perhaps my colleagues have become what Leah McLaren believes to be “closet conservatives”.

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