Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Alberta gets fresh black eye with tar sands coverage

Alberta gets fresh black eye with oilsands coverage
By Kelly Cryderman, Canwest News ServiceFebruary 22, 2009

CALGARY - It seems the Alberta government can't catch a break.

To add to the long list of international publications that have focused on the environmental costs of the oilsands, National Geographic chose its March edition to splash images of the development - with at least four pictures depicting unsightly tailings ponds - across its pages alongside an article.

At the same time that the iconic magazine highlighted issues ranging from the loss of aboriginal homelands to the destruction of boreal forest, United States President Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa this week focused international attention on Alberta's vast bitumen resources.

Environmental groups used the opportunity to take aim.

ForestEthics and two northern Alberta First Nations groups took out a full- paged ad in USA Today showing Canadian oil oozing over the continental United States, while newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Guardian waded into the environmental debate.

The Alberta government is - on what has become a regular basis - in a pitched struggle with environmentalists and the media over control of the thorny climate change issue.

And the politics surrounding the oilsands - and the world's understanding of Alberta's oil reserves - may define the current Alberta government's time in power.

Earlier this week, Premier Ed Stelmach said comments that Alberta has the dirtiest oil on earth are ``most unfortunate. It's obviously disconcerting, but that's part of the misinformation that continues to roll out quite often from self-interest groups, painting Alberta and the country of Canada with a picture like that.''

But Simon Dyer, oilsands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, said from the Stelmach's government's point of view, ``there still seems to be the perception that this is a public relations battle. ''

Dyer added, ``industry and government need to take responsibility for the environmental performance of the oilsands.''

Former federal energy minister Anne McLellan, who spearheaded new laws a decade ago to encourage the widespread development of the oilsands, said although government and industry has lagged behind in the past, they are finally getting the message that the environment matters.

``Talk isn't good enough anymore. And good intentions. People are saying, `Show me,''' McLellan said this week.

The U.S., which gets one-fifth of its crude imports from Canada - mostly from Alberta - will always need Canada's oil, she said. Rebuilding the troubled economies of both countries will take precedence above anything else.

However, the United States is now playing a new tune to dance to. Obama has made clear he wants his country to become a leader when it comes to reducing the world's greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

Trade will go a lot more smoothly if Alberta and Canada can show they're not being ``obstructionist, that we are not ostriches with our heads in the sand. We understand to produce that oil takes a lot of energy, produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions - and we want to do better,'' McLellan said.

``This province has got to have a concrete, responsible, leading-edge story to tell the rest of North America,'' said the former Liberal minister. ``We do have time. But not a lot of time.''

A $2-billion commitment from the Alberta government to build carbon capture and storage technology is a good start, she said.

As the oilsands produces more CO2 emissions - and takes significantly more energy and water to produce than conventional oil - McLellan also praised other recent initiatives.

But critics, such as opposition members and environmental groups, say it's hard not to have some suspicions about the Alberta government's timing.

In the days and weeks leading up to the president's visit, Alberta was awash in environmental initiatives - including laying charges against Syncrude for the deaths of 500 ducks in a tailings pond last year, a report on cancers in aboriginal communities downstream from the oilsands, and new rules from the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB).

Just last week, the government released a long-awaited, 20-year blueprint for Alberta's oilsands that aims ``to reduce the environmental footprint, optimize economic growth and increase the quality of life in Alberta's oilsands regions.''

But the report was immediately criticized for being light on details.

No matter what policies are adopted, the Alberta government is showing signs it is moving from what first appeared to be hardened stances.

While Stelmach railed against any kind of national carbon-emissions pricing system last summer - saying it could lead to more dollars draining from Alberta - Provincial Environment Minister Rob Renner now says Alberta will have to be a part of any North American climate change plan, noting that ``Alberta simply can't go it alone.''

And although the U.S. president has in the past spoken of breaking his country's addiction to ``dirty'' oil, Obama did not use the term during his visit to Canada this week.

In a television interview beforehand, he acknowledged the oilsands development ``creates a big carbon footprint.'' But Obama was careful to point out the U.S. has its own problems with significant greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. He talked about carbon capture and storage being one part of the solution.

Obama's comments on using technology to solve the energy issue were lauded by leaders such as Stelmach, who said Obama is ``clearly speaking Alberta's language.'' The industry also embraced the president's nuanced stance.

That doesn't mean a public relations offensive is over.

The Alberta government has already spent the months since late last summer completing a $25-million branding strategy that is meant to show the world the ``Alberta story,'' said Roxanna Benoit, managing director of the provincial government's Public Affairs Bureau.

The strategy, which the premier says he is ``ecstatic'' about, will be rolled out sometime this spring. Benoit was adamant that it will show much more than a public relations exercise.

``There is real action being taken,'' Benoit said of environmental initiatives.

Calgary Herald

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service


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