The Alberta Oil Sands have been in the news a lot recently – largely because of the controversy surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline project in the US. However, it seems that the very real ethical concerns surrounding the ongoing development of the oil sands are, relatively speaking, currently less discussed on our side of the border.
I had the pleasure of attending Dalhousie’s fourth annual Ransom A. Myers Lecture a couple weeks ago. Dr. Schindler made a very compelling case against any sort of complacent or dismissive attitude towards the environmental impact of the oil sands developments in northern Alberta. There are innumerable reasons people are opposed to the developments of the oil sands, and Dr. Schindler touched on a number of these – broken treaties with the First Nations, carcinogens in the atmosphere and water supply, vast swaths of destroyed land. But for me, the most thought-provoking part of his lecture was his assessment of the Government’s monitoring program.
The benefits of developing the oil sands, in terms of jobs and royalties, are easy enough to estimate – the costs are much trickier. It’s hard to put a price tag on the environment. The costs incurred by the public in the business of extracting oil – polluted water and air, damaged land and oil-slicked waterfowl – are not accounted for by the market. Left to their own devices, producers would just pollute like mad – because there is no incentive for them to practice responsible stewardship, and lots of incentive for them to make lots of money. There are a number of ways of ‘internalizing’ these externalities – in the case of the oil sands, legislation simply prohibits the industry from polluting the water supply, and the government requires firms to reclaim disturbed land after the bitumen has been extracted. This internalizes the cost, i.e. the producer pays the cost that would otherwise be paid by society. And this is often quite expensive – by some estimates, expensive enough to make the development of the oil sands unprofitable. But, it neatly sidesteps trouble with placing a price-tag on the environment – it’s just not acceptable to pollute.
Anyway, companies operating in the oil sands claim that they are cleaning up after themselves – the party line is that any pollution found in the rivers is simply naturally occurring, present prior to development. And they were backed up by the data from provincial oversight programs. Shockingly, when Dr. Schindler’s research team performed an independent study, this was not the case. Oil giants polluting? Who would have thought?…
Dr. Schindler argued that the monitoring programs put in place by the province, specifically Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, were failing to detect toxins in the rivers around the oil sands developments. Although RAMP had millions of data points, the equipment they were using was nowhere near sensitive enough to pick up the very real pollution entering the waterways.
Sarcasm aside, anyone with a passing familiarity with the oil sands won’t be surprised to hear that the ongoing development is causing pollution. The sheer scale of the projects makes this almost certain. Does this mean that oil sands development should be halted? Given the circumstances, I think there’s a compelling argument to be made for slowing further development until research can be done to determine the true environmental costs of the project to date. But I also think that Albertans and Canadians will have to take a much harder look at the unavoidable non-monetary costs of the oil sands’ development. Firms should minimize their pollution as much as possible, of course – but there is no getting around all of the damage done to the environment in the process of extracting oil from the tar sands. If this is the case, what price are we willing to pay? Who will pay it? Future generations? Certainly, the cost is borne unfairly by the First Nations’ people living in the area at the moment. If there must be pollution, they must be consulted and reimbursed.
This is the kind of mature conversation the provincial government has a responsibility to foster, but it seems to be tying itself in knots trying to avoid. Because it’s hard. It’s hard to see birds poisoned by lakes of chemicals, and grotesquely mutated fish in rivers which otherwise look pristine and then to go on to argue that this is all part of the bargain (and this is to say nothing about climate change). It’s too easy to close our eyes to the damage done to the environment while still enjoying the benefits from afar, in Calgary or Edmonton or Ottawa. It may well be the case that we are willing to accept some of the environmental costs of the development of the oil sands in exchange for the very real material benefit it will bring Canadians, in jobs and tax dollars that can be spent on health-care, infrastructure in northern communities, etc. This is the discussion – free of polemics – that we should be having.
But this conversation can’t even be started when regulatory oversight is weak, and the accurate data necessary to make an informed decision isn’t available to the public. Researchers need to be well funded, and the approval process for new developments needs to be rigorous. The Albertan government spends $25m advertising the cleanliness of the oil sands, but barely 1% of that sum on programs such as RAMP to ensure it’s cleanliness. This seems, to me, to be simply wrong.
I haven’t had the chance to watch it myself, but The Tipping Point features Dr. Schindler and the above mentioned research. It’s free to watch online, and I’m told it is excellent.