Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Ricardo Acuna on Non-Consensus in the Tar Sands Multi-Stakeholder Committee


Oil Sands Committee reports back

It is time for the Stelmach government to pick a side: public or industry.

Dateline: Tuesday, August 07, 2007

by Ricardo Acuna

Last week, the Alberta Government released the much anticipated final report and recommendations of the Oil Sands Multi-Stakeholder Committee — the committee charged with carrying out a broad-based consultation with Albertans and making recommendations on the future of the Alberta tar sands.

The report includes 120 different recommendations for action, all based on what was heard in public meetings, in written submissions and from expert symposiums over the course of the last 12 months.

Of those recommendations, 96 were presented as items on which there was consensus. These include some important and valuable recommendations on questions of reclamation of tar sands areas and community infrastructure.

The government reps on the committee chose to disregard the expressed wishes of Albertans and sided instead with industry.

The remaining 24 recommendations were items on which there was not consensus, but that were included in the report nonetheless in order that the government might consider them along with the others.

The problem is that among those 24 recommendations lie the key issues requiring government attention. These include questions about slowing the pace of development (or an outright moratorium); setting hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions; increasing royalty rates; and looking closely at both the health impacts on local populations and the long-term investment of resource revenues.

The fact that these are listed, as "non-consensus" items should not be taken to mean that the public submissions on these topics were evenly split. In fact, in some cases, quite the opposite is true.

On the question of the pace of development, for example, most of the submissions made called for a drastic slow-down and many went as far as to call for a moratorium on new leases and permits. Likewise, with the amount of support shown in the submissions for hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions and for increasing royalty rates.

The reason that these are listed as "non-consensus" items is that some of the members of the Multi-Stakeholder Committee did not agree with the recommendations. In other words, even though the committee was charged with carrying out a public consultation, and reporting back on the public's wishes, these members determined that their own personal opinions should override public input.

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that industry representatives lined up squarely against consensus on the issues above. Clearly, these folks were on the committee to protect their bottom lines from what they saw as unreasonable public interest demands.

For them to actually agree to recommendations of slower development, emissions caps and higher royalties would be completely contradictory to their reason for participating in the process in the first place.

What is more disconcerting, however, is the fact that the Government of Alberta reps on the committee lined up shoulder to shoulder with industry and against the public interest on every one of the issues above. In other words, the government reps on the committee chose to disregard the expressed wishes of Albertans and sided instead with industry.

It is a testament to the environmental and public-at-large representatives on the committee that the non-consensus issues were included in the final report at all. Reps from industry and government insisted repeatedly throughout the process that only those recommendations on which there was consensus should be included in the report. If it were not for the insistence of the others at the table, these broadly supported ideas would never have seen the light of day — let alone us ever knowing who exactly stood opposed to these recommendations.

Albertans clearly owe those committee reps a debt of gratitude. More importantly, Albertans owe it to those committee members to ensure that their hard work on these issues was not in vain.

The report has now been presented to the Ministers of Sustainable Resource Development, Energy and Environment for future action and policy decisions. The ministers, along with the provincial government as a whole, will now have to decide whose side they are on.

During the consultation process, both Premier Stelmach and the government reps on the committee made it clear that the government would neither "step on the brake" to slow development, nor would they implement hard emissions caps.

They also made it clear, however, that they would carefully consider and be guided by the results of this consultation process.

The decision now facing the government is whether to listen to Albertans or to the oil industry. Albertans have a key role to play in helping the government make that decision. They can call their MLAs, the Premier's office, and the relevant ministers, and remind them in no uncertain terms who elected them, who pays their salaries and whose interest they are supposed to be promoting.

I have said before that the government was painting itself into a corner on this issue. They will now be forced to make a very clear and unequivocal declaration of where exactly their allegiances lie, and then have to head into an election shortly thereafter.

Albertans know what the right decision is, but if the public does not help the government figure it out, Ed Stelmach and his buddies are not likely to make the right choice.

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

Related addresses:

URL 1: www.ualberta.ca/PARKLAND

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