IT'S TIME FOR ALBERTANS TO DRAW A LINE IN THE (TAR) SAND
BILL MOORE-KILGANNON / pialberta.org
There once was a thin red line on a map. That may sound like the start of a fairy tale, but in fact it is the real beginning of a critical debate about Alberta’s energy future.
You see, high up in a corporate tower someone has decided to draw a red line that runs from the town of Hardisty east of Edmonton across Saskatchewan and Manitoba and then straight South all the way to the southern United States. This line is called the Keystone Pipeline, and it is part of a proposal from TransCanada Pipelines to ship 435 000 barrels of bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands per day to be processed into oil and other petrochemical products in the United States.
This line is important to a lot of powerful people. In particular, this line is seen by many of the largest oil companies as a critical foundation in their plan to keep rapidly expanding Alberta’s oil sands to feed the United States’ “addiction to oil” while keeping declining US processing plants functioning.
The Keystone pipeline is just one of many such projects that are in the works to lock Alberta’s economy into being merely an exporter of raw materials, but it is a crucial line that will determine which direction we are going to go as a province. Perhaps this is why whoever drew that line on the map decided to call it “Keystone,” which, according to the dictionary, means a “piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place, or something on which associated things depend for support”.
This would explain why the pipeline and oil companies had close to 40 corporate lawyers and senior staff out to defend their pipeline at the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings last week in Calgary. Normally, the NEB is a mere speed bump on an oil company’s path to developing their plans, but this time the NEB hearings have become the scene for serious interventions from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), the Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) and the Parkland Institute. The three groups have used the only venue that is available to highlight some facts and pose some critical questions about whose interest will be served by this pipeline.
At the hearings, AFL president Gil McGowan asked “Why, for example, should we settle for the 17 long-term jobs that the applicant says will be created in Canada by this pipeline when we could have 18 000 jobs? Why should we sit on the sidelines while big, US-controlled integrated oil companies use our oil to revive their aging refineries in the US mid-west and on the Gulf Coast when that oil could be used, instead, to transform Alberta into North America’s newest hub for upgrading and refining.”
Not only does Alberta lose out on jobs, we lose control over how we develop our own resources. Where does this leave a provincial government-appointed committee who have been consulting Albertans for the past nine months about the future of the tar sands? The overwhelming feedback that they have received from all sectors is that the uncontrolled expansion of the tar sands is creating huge problems for the environment, for cities throughout Alberta who cannot expand the services and infrastructure, and for the average Albertans who are not benefiting from the boom and who can no longer afford to pay the skyrocketing rents.
This process of public consultation has delivered a clear message from Albertans that they expect the government to stop the uncontrolled development of the tar sands and to make sure that it is Albertans who are deciding how we should be developing our energy resources. Ironically, at the same time the oilsands committee is about to release its report, the Keystone pipeline is in the final stage of being approved at the NEB.
When Premier Ed Stelmach was running for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party, he said exporting unrefined bitumen was equivalent to scraping off the topsoil of a farm and selling it. Now that he is the Premier, he has yet to stand up to the multinational oil companies and pipeline industry and commit to defend the public interest.
If the government of Alberta is not going to stop this project from locking us in place as nothing more than a supplier of raw products to the US, then it is time Albertans get ready to stand up and draw our own line in the tar sands. It is time we stop believing in the fairy tale that the invisible hand of the market should make all the decisions and to start to write our own story. V
Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta, an Edmonton-based, non-partisan, province-wide organization focused on education and advocacy on public interest issues.