The Oil Sands: Canada’s Uncomfortable Truth

George Hoberg

Barack Obama’s remarkable rise to power and his trip to Ottawa this week raise delicate questions about Canada’s national identity. Canada has always struggled to define itself in relation to its much more powerful neighbour, and has tended to do so by drawing contrasts – for examples, we’re more peaceful, egalitarian, and environmentally conscious.

When it comes to the environment, Canada’s self-image has been out of step with reality for quite some time. But President Obama’s visit is focusing the spotlight on Canada’s uncomfortable truth:  one of our most significant economic assets, and our most powerful source of influence over the US, is “dirty oil.” Our vast oil sands make us the second ranked country in the world in proven oil reserves, behind Saudi Arabia, and have been a coveted component of the US drive for energy security.

Alberta has been left in charge of managing the national image on oil sands, and Canada’s environmental performance and credibility is suffering as a result. Last week, the Government of Alberta released its long term plan for the development of the oil sands. Strategy One of the plan is to “develop Alberta’s oil sands in an environmentally responsible way.”

There may be some debate about what it means to be environmentally responsible, but we can all agree it involves more than glossy public relations and interminable multistakeholder discussions. It requires action. Alberta’s record of action on environmental stewardship in the oil sands is poor, and last week’s announcement reveals more of the same and no significant indication of an increased commitment to environmental protection.

The environmental impacts of oil sands developments are complex, but can be boiled down into three core categories:  air, water, and land. Without a credible strategy for addressing environmental impacts in all three of these areas, Alberta cannot support its claim of environmental responsibility.

First, regarding air pollution, the new Alberta strategy merely promises to “meet or exceed Alberta’s greenhouse gas reduction objectives.” Hardly a new initiative, and one demonstrably inadequate to the task given that it is based on “intensity targets” that allow emissions to grow along with oil sands production.

Second, water quantity and quality are major issues for the oil sands. The new plan commits to no specific new actions, and simply reiterates commitments to develop a more comprehensive and effective framework.

The third major category of environmental effects of the oil sands is land, especially the cumulative effects of oil sands projects on boreal forest habitat for migratory birds and species of concern. The new plan promises to use the province’s ongoing process to develop a “Land-use Framework” to address cumulative effects, and to “strengthen organizations to collaboratively manage and monitor environmental performance.”

The problem with these strategies is that Alberta has already been doing this for over eight years through an organization called the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a multistakeholder organization created in 2000 explicitly for this purpose. CEMA struggled to deliver results, but when it finally produced a sophisticated plan for sustaining ecosystems in June of 2008, the government ignored it. Environmentalists who were committed to the process withdrew in frustration, undermining CEMA’s credibility.

The experience with CEMA shows that rather than being consultation in support of regulation, Alberta’s multistakeholder processes have become consultation instead of regulation, a strategy of “talk and dig.” Obama will not be fooled. He knows lipstick on a pig when he sees it, and his Secretary of Energy has a Nobel Prize in physics and a clear-eyed view of the risks of climate change. The weakness of the regulation of the oil sands is so glaring that Obama will not be able to look the other way.

Champions of the oil sands have criticized the environmentalists’ “world’s dirtiest oil” campaign for exaggerating the impacts. It is true that all sources of energy produce environmental impacts. It is also true that all forms of unconventional oil, of which oil sands are one of the most developed examples, are dirtier than conventional crude. But that is no justification for refusing to develop a rigorous framework for environmental regulation of the oil sands.

The Government of Alberta has a powerful anti-regulation bias that is clouding its ability to clearly see what actions need to be taken to improve their credibility on the environment. Shortly after becoming premier, Ed Stelmach famously said he did not want to “touch the brake” on oil sands development. The metaphor is revealing about the Alberta government’s approach to regulation. What kind of vehicle could one operate where an unwillingness to “touch the brake” would be responsible?

It’s time for Canada to stop hiding behind toothless commitments to lofty ideals of environmental stewardship, responsibility, or sustainability.  Alberta’s inaction on regulating the oil sands is irresponsible, and the rest of Canada is being tarred with the same oil.

Professor George Hoberg teaches energy policy in the Conservation Program at the University of British Columbia.


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