Minister tells the Government side; Hamilton should challenge him.
Federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver is speaking to the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce on March 30th. His talk is described as “about the Federal Budget and the future of Canada's oil sands and associated manufacturing opportunities here in Ontario.”
Minister Oliver’s views and those of the federal Government are well known. They promote development of the tar sands as one of the main routes to economic growth in Canada. But there is another view that must be heard before deciding if the rewards of the tar sands exploitation are worth the cost.
The impact of developing Alberta’s tar sands is of national importance, so clearly there is some responsibility of civil society in Hamilton to ask if the growth and jobs created are justified. The City of Hamilton has for a long time promoted the “triple bottom line” as a way to view the merits of any proposal. It asks that we always view development in three ways – economic, social and environmental. The “triple bottom line” is also not a short term view, but asks what sort of City we want for future generations – more recently we’ve adopted “the best place to raise a child” which happily reflects a long term view.
So let’s look at the tar sands through the triple lens and for the long term - for generations to come - for Canada and the rest of the world.
The economic impact of the tar sands
The cost of inaction on climate change in terms of lost GDP outweighs the costs of taking action to cut emissions. Yet the tar sands exploitation, far from helping meet any emissions goal, is making it harder to reach. We are trading off current GDP growth for much larger GDP losses in the future. Losses that come from drought reduced agricultural production, pine beetle devastated forests, poorer fishing yields and flood and storm damaged homes and property. Some pundits state that Canada will benefit from warmer weather, without discussing the disruption that comes from accelerated climate change and the broader impacts – which will affect global GDP. In these days of globalization, we are not immune to this – as we can see when Honda North America had to shut production last year due to floods in Thailand. Worse still would be the cost of the “climate wars” anticipated by Gwynne Dyer.
We’ve seen our Premier state that our “petro-dollar” is driving manufacturing away from Ontario. And where are the economic benefits really going? To large foreign owned oil companies who are mining the oil. Not to supply Canadians but to supply the gas guzzling life style of our neighbours to the south.
The social impact of the tar sands
It is clear that the exploitation of the tar sands has led to debate, much of it unpleasant. Locally, nationally and globally we see communities and governments who not only disagree (which is democratic) but resort to finger pointing, unjust accusations and sometimes unethical tactics.
Tell the whole story on the Tar Sands
At the local level the tar sands are having significant negative impacts on nearby communities – there’s evidence that mining the Athabasca tar sands has increased cancer causing levels in the environment downstream on the Athabasca River. Health Canada has asserted that “climate change is expected to increase risks to the health of Canadians through many pathways – the food they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink”. So as the tar sands impact our climate, so they impact our health. Nationally we see the breakdown in civil discussion. We see the spat between Premier Dalton McGuinty and Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford in discussing the rising value of our dollar due to oil exports and its impact on our manufacturing economy. We see respected national organizations being tarred as “radical groups” when challenging the Northern Gateway pipeline.
Canada’s international standing has also been harmed. We lost the respect of many countries globally when we backed out of the Kyoto commitment at last December’s Durban Summit. For this we earned yet another “Fossil of the Year” award, for the fifth year running.
The environmental impact of the tar sands
No one, not even our Minister of Natural Resources, has claimed that the tar sands are good for the environment. They are affecting an area of 140,000 sq km in the primary boreal forest of Canada, an area the size of New York State or England. Due to oil sands operations, the Alberta landscape will never look the same again, as the forest is blasted away into huge opencast mines and vast tailing ponds filled with toxic waste water. Promises to reclaim the forests to their original state are unlikely to be possible. Canada is home to half the remaining boreal forest in the world, which contains 11% of the global terrestrial carbon sinks. In order to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the International Panel on Climate Change has said that global emissions must peak by 2015 and fall by at least 80% compared with 1990 levels by 2050. Yet Canada’s emissions have grown by over 30% since 1990 and we have no real plan to bring them down by enough to come close to what is needed.
The production of oil sands is also water intensive, averaging three barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil. The primary source of water is the Athabasca River, which is already down to critical levels as extraction from the river increases. Only 5-10 percent of the water is returned to the river. The rest is too toxic and is stored in tailing ponds so poisonous that birds who land there die. The huge volumes mean that enormous amounts of toxic wastewater are produced. Individual tailing ponds are up to 50 sq km in size and (so large they) can be seen from space.
What’s a job worth?
So when Minister Oliver stands up to promote the tar sands, lets also ask questions about the true triple bottom line, not just for today’s slightly bruised economy but also for the world of our children and grandchildren. Who will truly benefit from oil sands development?
Hamilton 350 Blog