Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Separating truth from greenwashing in the West's energy export boom

Separating truth from greenwashing in the West's energy export boom
By Andrea Harden-Donahue
| June 24, 2009

Reading the Saskatchewan government's news release announcing the Energy Council conference, I couldn't help but reflect on the connections with the news of a proposed Western Energy Corridor, recently reported in the Star Phoenix following the Western Governors Association (WGA) Annual Conference. While both are riddled with words like 'sustainability' and 'clean energy,' red flags are going up in seeing emerging themes that raise some serious questions.

Prominent themes include emphasizing Saskatchewan's abundant energy resources, the U.S. as a key export market and the need to expand cross-border energy trade as well as exploring nuclear generation. The Western Energy Corridor, spearheaded in part by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, will reportedly be the largest on the planet and could open new markets in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for both fossil fuel (including the tar sands in Alberta) and 'clean-energy' developments.

In the news release for the conference, Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd describes being pleased to "showcase" the province's "diverse energy resources." He highlights Saskatchewan's examining of options for nuclear power, references the proposed Corridor and carbon capture and storage (a technology Environment Minister Jim Prentice recently admitted is not a 'silver bullet' solution to emissions from the tar sands).

These recent developments appear to be laying the groundwork for more export-focused Canadian energy developments. This reflects the free market oriented approach that has dominated federal and provincial energy policies since former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney declared Canada 'open for business' in 1984. As an energy strategy, emphasizing energy exports raises a number of serious social and environmental concerns.

Alberta’s energy gold rush

Reflecting on the situation in Alberta provides insight. Producing over a million barrels daily with plans for significant expansion (delayed, not abandoned, as a result of the economic crisis), Alberta's tar sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country. Nearby First Nations communities have raised concerns over unusually high rates of cancers and the lack of recognition of aboriginal title and treaty rights. The mining requires large tracts of boreal forest, often referred to as the lungs of our planet, to be destroyed. On average, two to five barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil and large amounts of toxic water are stored in massive tailings ponds (according to a report from Environmental Defence, they leak 11 million litres of contaminated water daily).

These impacts are the result of an export oriented energy gold rush in the tar sands. While the impacts are felt in Alberta and Canada, over half of current production is exported to the U.S. While strong opposition to the tar sands is emerging south of the border, as reported in the Star Phoenix article, Vice-chair of the WGA, Brian Schweitzer, affirms the importance of the tar sands to U.S. energy security and a “major component for a powerhouse energy corridor [referencing the Western Energy Corridor].”

Premiers overlooking impact of export agenda

In moving forward with an energy export agenda, Premiers appear to be overlooking or underemphasizing these serious impacts. They are also underestimating how trade rules limit the capacity of Canadian governments to intervene in energy trade -- even with respect to ensuring energy security or protecting the environment -- except in extraordinary circumstances.

NAFTA's proportional sharing obliges Canada to continue exporting energy to the U.S. in the same proportion of total supply sold over the three previous years. Since the U.S. is our largest export market, this means that there is nothing in the free market to stop our exports from going higher. Already Canada exports around 70 per cent of the oil and 61 per cent of the natural gas it produces.

NAFTA's notorious chapter 11 acts both preventively as well as punitively in undermining strong environmental and labour standards. It allows corporations to sue member governments for compensation in secretive trade tribunals over almost any state measure that impacts predicted profits. DOW Chemical is currently challenging Quebec's pesticide ban, ExxonMobil announced in 2007 its intention to bring forward a lawsuit over requirements for research and development and local employment in the Newfoundland offshore oil industry.

So, what could the proposed Western Energy Corridor include? In addition to ongoing exports from Alberta's tar sands, bitumen deposits -- the tar-like substance exploited in the tar sands -- extend into northwest Saskatchewan and could potentially become commercially viable in the near future. Permits are already being issued for exploratory drilling and the Corridor would create a large market for this dirty oil.

In announcing his attendance of the Energy Council conference, Arkansas Speaker of the House Robbie Wills highlighted uranium as an “important resource” given signals from the Obama administration in building more nuclear power plants. About 80 per cent of uranium mined in Canada, much of it coming from Saskatchewan, is exported. In addition to posing water contamination risks, all stages of mining and milling create low level radioactive waste -- risks from increased uranium mining in the province will be borne in Saskatchewan.

Hydroelectric power (Manitoba having significant generation capacity) as well as new 'clean energy sources' are emphasized in news reports. While cooperation in research and technology for renewable energy seems commonsense, there are social and environmental risks in pursuing an export driven bonanza in clean energy developments -- significant opposition in B.C. to the 'run of the river' energy gold rush raises these concerns.

There are also signals that nuclear power (often greenwashed as 'clean energy') will fit into plans for export oriented energy developments. Saskatchewan's Uranium Development Partnership consultations that include examining the possibility of a nuclear reactor, is also highlighted in the news release for the Energy Council conference.

New nuclear plants to power tar sands

Meanwhile, Bruce Power is promoting the idea of a 2000 megawatt nuclear power plant between Prince Albert and Lloydminster in Saskatchewan, some of which would be exported to the U.S. or Alberta to help power tar sands operations. In Alberta, Bruce Power is proposing up to four nuclear reactors in the Peace River area (about 400 kilometres northwest of Edmonton) for sale in Alberta (likely offsetting the reliance on natural gas to power tar sands operations) and for export.

Not only is nuclear power notoriously expensive with many Canadian examples of cost overruns, it is not clean or safe. There remain significant challenges with how to manage nuclear waste, it requires large amounts of water and there are serious safety considerations. For all of these reasons, there is significant opposition to proposals for nuclear power in Saskatchewan and Alberta from community-based coalitions and networks.

While they can't be given due consideration here, there are alternatives such as maximizing regional self-sufficiency in environmentally-friendly energy production and consumption and a Canadian Energy Strategy guided by the principles of energy security and ecological sustainability -- not profit.

If an export oriented strategy is indeed the road being chosen by Prairie provinces, we all have reason for pause, and concern.

Andrea Harden-Donahue is the Energy Campaigner for the Council of Canadians.

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