Digging the bitumen out

The debate regarding the Alberta tar sands rages on

“Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it into synthetic crude is a monumental challenge. ... In short, it is an enterprise of epic proportions ... akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”

- Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the 2006 G8 conference

In one of my most talked about radio interviews to date, Saint Boniface Conservative MP Shelly Glover took me to task over my use of the term “tar sands” to describe the thick formations of petroleum, sand and clay that cover much of northern Alberta.

“They’re called oil sands, my dear,” she said, and pointed out that Alberta’s “ethical oil” was generating lucrative jobs and boosts to the Canadian economy.

In response to my point about wide-spread opposition to these energy projects, including and especially from aboriginal people, she maintained that by not acknowledging the support among many aboriginal people for the mining of these materials, that I was somehow not presenting a “balanced” perspective on these projects.

Whether Ms. Glover was speaking from personal encounters or was merely reading Ezra Levant’s crib notes, I must confess I am not aware of these legions of indigenous oil sands defenders, excepting of course the industry shills who have presented themselves at public meetings in affected communities.

But be that as it may, Glover’s outburst, coming in the midst of what was supposed to be a discussion about the federal budget consultations, was very telling of the energy (pun intended) being spent promoting the (whatever you want to call it) sands at home and abroad.

There is certainly evidence substantiating Glover’s claim that these petroleum-soaked sands constitute a major generator of capital for the Canadian economy. As Bruce Carson, of the Canada School of Energy and the Environment, and former policy advisor to Prime Minister Harper points out:

“The oil sands alone currently contribute 112,000 jobs across Canada, and over the next 25 years it is expected to contribute over 11 million person years of employment to Canada and $1.7 trillion to the Canadian economy - spread all across the country.”

Nevertheless, criticism from environmentalists, citizen advocacy groups, indigenous peoples and, yes, even some political economists, cannot easily be dismissed by Glover’s brand of rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

According to political science professor James Laxer, the industry is currently the biggest generator of greenhouse gases in Canada, overwhelming efforts outside the sector to attain or even approach the reductions necessary to meet our commitments under international agreements like the Kyoto protocol.

The sands drain vast amounts of water at a time when water conservation needs to be enhanced. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, the industry consumes as much water in a year as a city twice the size of Winnipeg. What would the Canadian government’s ambitious plans for an expansion of the industry do to communities downstream?

One worrying development is reports of higher than expected incidents of rare cancers in communities like Ft. Chipewyan, downstream of the project. Many residents have linked these new cancers to the processing of the sands.

According to energy expert Richard Heinberg, it takes 500 to 700 cubic feet of natural gas to generate one barrel of synthetic crude. As natural gas production in Canada peaks and goes into decline in a few years, the sands will be competing with cold Canadian households for the vital substance.

These impacts affect all Canadians, inside and outside of Alberta, and the stakes are immense. Whatever side of the political spectrum they may fall on, it is imperative Canadians engage in a national discussion about our energy policy and not be held hostage by government and industry propaganda.

Michael Anthony Welch is the news director at CKUW 95.9 FM and co-host of ALERT Radio.

Published in Volume 66, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 25, 2012)

Related Reads