Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Consultations a Scam: "Don't ask Questions If you Don't Want Answers"

RICARDO ACUNA / ualberta.ca/parkland

If you don’t want to hear the answer, then you shouldn’t ask the question. Likewise, if you are already convinced you have the solution, and nothing will change your mind, then don’t ask for advice and input.

Of course, in Alberta during the Klein years, we became used to a slight variation on the above tenets—asking the right very narrow and carefully designed questions will ensure you get only the answers you want no matter whom you ask.

The current province-wide consultations on the future of Alberta’s oil sands were inherited by the Stelmach government from their predecessors. The idea was to create a committee made up of industry, native leaders, government and environmental organizations to travel the province and gather input from Albertans about how development of the oil sands should proceed.

The first round of consultations wrapped up in the fall, and the committee released its interim report at the end of November. Now the committee has released a second document, listing over 100 possible options for strategies and actions in a variety of areas, many of which are in direct contradiction with each other. This second document is forming the basis for a second round of consultations, which is currently touring the province asking for feedback on the list of strategies.

On the surface, this is exactly what a consultation should look like. The committee has representation from a variety of stakeholders, the process is open and transparent with all proceedings and meeting minutes posted on the internet and the outcomes have not been predetermined.

The only question that remains is how much weight the government will actually give to the final recommendations of the committee. Three months away from the conclusion of the process, the answer to this question is far from clear.

Premier Stelmach has made it perfectly clear that he has no intentions of “touching the brake” on oilsands development. He has also said a moratorium is out of the question, and that he doesn’t believe government should interfere with the pace of development determined by the market. Given that the pace of future development is one of the biggest issues before the oilsands committee, it would appear that the Premier has made up his mind on how to proceed regardless of what the committee might have to report.

Likewise with climate change and water use in the Athabasca—despite the fact that the oilsands committee is looking closely at both these issues and will almost certainly bring forth recommendations on them, the government has decided to proceed with new legislation on both fronts without bothering to wait for the committee.

The government’s decision to continue handing out new oilsands development permits in the midst of the consultation process gives a further indication of how committed they are to the process itself. As the committee tries to figure out what the appropriate level and pace of oilsands development is, the government’s refusal to call a even temporary moratorium is ensuring that future development will continue to grow at the current break-neck pace regardless of the committee.

At this point, even if the committee were to recommend a serious slow-down in the pace of development or to suggest that oilsands extraction not grow beyond today’s levels, the new developments that have already been approved would make it a moot point—enough permits have already been handed out to fully double current oilsands production.

The sad reality is that, although the actual consultation process is an improvement over the window-dressing consultations of the Klein years, it would appear that the outcome will be no different—a government with no interest at all in actually acting on what Albertans are recommending.

And there can be very little question as to what it is Albertans are recommending—a vast majority of presenters (virtually 100 per cent of the people presenting at the committee’s recent Edmonton stop) are calling for a moratorium on new projects and a significant slowing in the pace of production.

Albertans also seem to want serious action on climate change, significant reductions in water use by the industry, and an increase in the royalties paid in the oil sands.

All submissions and presentations to the committee will be posted online, which is a good thing because it will be easy to identify the huge gap between what Albertans want and what the government is prepared to do. As always, however, it will be up to Albertans to hold the government’s feet to the fire and force them to act—otherwise, we will see no better results from this process than we have seen from any past consultations, and, when it comes to the oil sands, we cannot afford that. V

Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.

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