Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Enviros Target Tar Sands while in Fort McMurray

Green groups target oilsands projects
'It's time to get . . . opinions swayed'
Joel Kom, Calgary Herald; with a file from The Edmonton Journal
Published: Sunday, August 05, 2007

Environmentalists have come to the epicentre of oilsands development this weekend to highlight the vast changes taking place near Fort McMurray.

The Pembina Institute -- the Alberta-bred voice of environmental and energy issues for 25 years -- is hoping a canoe expedition on the Athabasca River, which runs through the heart of the oilsands, will capture the public's attention.

"All the science has been going on for a long time," said expedition leader Don van Hout, noting the issues have clearly been laid out.

"Now it's time to get people's opinions swayed. Reports can only do so much."

The expedition is one example of the stepped-up environmental movement that is targeting the oilsands industry that tears up vast lands and emits thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide to produce oil.

This week, Greenpeace Canada set up an office in Edmonton with the goal of stopping the development they say ravages the environment.

Its two Alberta-born staff members say the time is right to set up shop.

"Alberta's where the problem's happening," said Geeta Sehgal, the office's climate and energy campaign organizer. "The tarsands are pretty much the most destructive megaproject in the world right now."

Her co-worker, Mike Hudema, has a similar view.

"My dream is really that we would stop subsidizing and investing in one of the dirtiest oil projects in the world."

Greenpeace has had success before, notably in British Columbia where it and other environmental groups planted themselves in front of trees slated for clear-cutting. The disruptions worked as they eventually won major concessions from government and industry.

But industry here, in the midst of multibillion-dollar expansions, says it doesn't feel threatened by the attention.

Greg Stringham with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the companies have been good stewards of the land they use.

"There were always strict environmental regulations to begin with, so I don't think it's changed very much," Stringham said of the recent attention.

It's that type of confidence in the face of increased scrutiny that provokes international groups.

But the environmental voice is also growing at home.

Landowners' groups have been springing up throughout the province, demanding action on what they see as environmental sacrifices made at the altar of economic prosperity.

The Southern Alberta Land Trust Society this week called on the province to step back and pause before moving ahead with more approvals.

"One or two tarsands plants, that's OK," said Alan Gardner, the society's executive director. "But the pace of development . . . it crosses in a sense a threshold where people start to say, 'Can we deal with the liabilities that are caused?' "

Growing opposition has brought landowners' coalitions together with First Nations and environmental groups. The growing co-ordination is new to First Nations, said George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort McMurray.

"I think, for us, it's the first time we've ever organized this way to look at oilsands development," Poitras said.

Some people saw this wave coming.

Former Reform party leader Preston Manning has said in recent years that governments and industry would see a growing appetite for environmental action.

That it has caught the attention of both homegrown and international groups speaks to how the issue transcends the typical "left" and "right" political lines, he said.

The movement follows in the footsteps of other Alberta political waves, such as the agricultural rights movement, he said.

The key test, particularly for international groups, will be to see how much they understand and respect the province's history when it comes to the oilsands, noting that about 40 years ago people were demanding more oil and gas development.

"There was a time between Turner Valley and Leduc when the oil companies all left except for Imperial Oil, and people were pleading for somebody to come drill holes," Manning said.

Industry, while defending its work, acknowledges the changing attitude in the province.

Jacob Irving, executive director of the Athabasca Regional Issues Working Group, which represents 24 oilsands producers, said the growing interest is a consequence of the ever-increasing projects.

"I think as oilsands development grows, public interest grows commensurately," he said.

The calls for action are a good opportunity for companies to restate their commitment to the environment, he said.

Those on the other side, of course, would say the commitment has been sorely lacking.

For van Hout, in the midst of paddling the final 500 kilometres of a 1,500-kilometre trip that started at the Columbia Icefield, his expedition goes beyond the typical tactics used in more humble days.

"In order to change people's minds in this province, you have to do something on a grand scale," he said as he stood beside the Athabasca River. "This is a grand scale."

© The Calgary Herald 2007

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