By Jody MacPherson
Originally posted on the Green Party of Alberta website in 2008.
The Stelmach government would have us believe they “have a plan” for this province’s energy future. As an Albertan I can only ask, “what plan?” I see no evidence of one, and neither do many Albertans. What I see is a moral vacuum—a total lack of forethought and planning for our province on every front. This is nowhere more evident than in the oil sands—our government’s free-for-all zone—where they’re selling off our second most precious resource (water being first) to the highest bidder.
ConocoPhillips, the Houston-based oil company, is a case in point. Conoco is the single biggest leaseholder in the oil sands, yet, with the go-ahead from our government, it intends to ramp up production from 60,000 barrels per day to one million barrels per day in the coming decades (Financial Post). Conoco’s ambitious extraction projects are beyond any politician’s wildest imagination, and you can be sure that looking out for the citizen’s best interests isn’t on its radar. The corporation’s senior vice-president, Matt Fox, states, “We believe that the oilsands … have to come to market for energy-security reasons and to meet demand. We think it’s going to be one of the key areas of growth from unconventional production.”
Growth. Isn’t it funny when it comes to discussion about energy it’s always about “growth” and more “growth”? Never conservation, never protection of water and land, let alone about slowing down to a reasonable pace of development. Just “growth.” As though that’s all that counts in our society, and nothing else.
As for the petroleum lobby that sternly warned us that increases in the royalty structure would “kill production,” the slight increases announced by the Stelmach government seem to have barely registered with Conoco’s head honchos. They say they can “temper the (royalty) hit with technology.” Meaning that the royalty increases are mere flyspecks on the balance sheet. Meaning that technological advances will make their production more lucrative than ever.
A recent opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out that “the five proposed new pipelines from Alberta’s tar sands to the U.S. will commit 75 to 80 per cent of Canada’s oil to the American market. Yet it is the taxpayers of Alberta and Canada who will pay the staggering environmental costs and subsidize the extraction bills.”
The article was right on the nose. The near giving away of our fossil fuels (thanks to NAFTA) is the equivalent of a fire sale, folks, with Stelmach’s government acting as if it needs to offload damaged goods instead of doing what a government is meant to do: govern by guarding and dispensing out our scarce and valuable fossil fuel resources with care and attention.
So, who’s watching out for the average Albertan?
In two simple words: no one. For years, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board has held hearings into whether each and every oil sands project should be allowed to proceed. Yet, even with interventions from local politicians, it has approved every single application without serious concern for the environment or regard to the socioeconomic impacts.
In fact, the Alberta government’s draft Mineable Oil Sands Strategy (MOSS) proposed the outrageous idea that the entire Wood Buffalo region should be written off (environmentally and socially) as some sort of “Mad Max-like” industrial zone. Is this the kind of plan that Conservatives believe will benefit the province? Is this how an intelligent government “leads”?
Fortunately, outrage from the public (and even from industry insiders who were dismayed) was so loud that the strategy was quietly dropped. Meanwhile, the Alberta government continued to approve projects as fast as it could rubber-stamp them. And a multi-stakeholder group called the Cumulative Environmental Management Association worked frantically to come up with standards for the regulators to determine how much was enough. The government never waited for the results, just continued to grant permits. What comes to mind is a ship that sets sail not knowing its maximum carrying capacity, route, or destination. Unbelievable.
What folly for our government “leaders” to think they can parcel off an area as large as the oil sands (one quarter of the province—the size of Florida), and simply leave it, in virtual isolation, as an environmental wasteland. The most basic understanding of ecosystems leads all logical people to the inevitable conclusion that, unlike the Las Vegas tagline, “what happens in Fort McMurray doesn’t stay in Fort McMurray.” Greenhouse gas emissions don’t merely affect the environment of the spunky northern town that has valiantly provided oil in bulk to its southern cousins; what the oil companies send into the atmosphere up north contribute to the entire planet’s eco-destruction.
On the socioeconomic side, we Albertans find ourselves in a situation where labour shortages, skyrocketing housing prices and the cost of living have created an unsustainable future. There’s increasing discontent throughout the province, even in the most conservative quarters. Clearly, a more orderly and rational permitting process would create gradual, steady growth where workers could move from one project to the next in a logical, sustained manner, with several years of employment nearly guaranteed. Instead, with the Tories at the helm, we’re caught in the same old boom and bust cycle perpetuated for the last three decades.
The government defends its approach with a claim that “the price of oil could bottom out and the companies would be unwilling to invest in our province.” This is nothing but fearmongering. Or, in the language of the local cowboys: “horse manure.” Consider the facts: Oil is a finite resource; insatiable demand for oil is growing from China and India; supply is dwindling; and no one knows how depleted the global oil reserves truly are. Even OPEC oil projections appear suspiciously unchanged despite significant recent depletion. Without independent verification of numbers, even the US Department of Energy says reserves are significantly overestimated. Does anyone truly believe that oil prices are going to go down for an extended period of time?
Here in good ol’ Tory Alberta, our government’s utter lack of planning has put unbelievable pressure on schools, hospitals, housing, and roads. Yet our political leaders’ eyes seems only to be on the money. At a time when reinvestment was needed in sustainable and alternative energy projects—Klein and his posse (which included Ed Stelmach) wrote cheques to Albertans because they knew that money would buy votes. It’s that crass.
What we need is a political party with the spine and strength to bring order out of this chaos. With a global shortage, oil should be recognized for what it is—a resource that needs to be more responsibly developed. We need to start thinking about a world where shortages are a reality, such as in Europe, where a sustainable movement is already underway. “Transition culture” focuses on looking at all aspects of community life for ways to decrease dependence on fossil fuel, thus lowering carbon emissions. The movement looks at everything that is impacted by the availability of cheap oil, including food, energy, transportation, health and education, the idea being to focus on solutions rather than laying blame.
Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the movement, states, “It’s about saying this is a problem (oil shortages): it’s not a choice, it’s an inevitability; How are we all going to re-adapt to this really?”
Good question. What we need now, of course, are solutions, and it’s not as if there aren’t models out there. Other provinces are already setting out programs to reduce their reliance on non-renewable energy. In 2006, the Ontario Power Authority introduced the Standard Offer Program to “help Ontario meet its renewable energy supply targets by providing a standard pricing regime and simplified eligibility, contracting and other rules for small renewable energy electricity generating projects.”
As a direct result of this incentive, the Ontario government recently approved a solar farm near Sarnia that will be the largest solar power station in North America. While we Albertans were cashing in our Ralph bucks, Ontarians were (and still are) investing in wind, solar and other alternate energy sources, programs that only make common sense for what’s coming.
Stelmach may seem like a nice guy who simply inherited a mess from Klein, but the fact is that by his own culpable hand, his cabinet choices include senior Tory leaders who held positions under Klein. These are the very politicians responsible for the mess we’re in—the same old “gang for growth.” So, it’d be hard to say that his tired team represents any kind of meaningful change.
And next time around it’ll be only more of the same unless Albertans stand up and voice their concerns in the only significant way they can: at the ballot box.