(October 7, 2011) The PM spoke out for the seal hunt. Now he must support the Alberta oil sands.
Prime Minister Harper, it’s time to stand up for Alberta and for Canada. You and your government are allowing Canada’s oil sands to be tarred as an evil at home and abroad when they should, in fact, be seen as one of our greatest assets.
Two years ago, when Newfoundland and Canada were being vilified over another emotive issue — our seal hunt — you took our case to Europe during European Union trade talks. “Canada will, both domestically and in front of international tribunals, vigorously defend our sealing industry,” you said in Prague. You could have done no less — you are the chief emissary for and defender of the Canadian brand.
Now Canada needs another principled defence in another vastly overblown environmental issue that threatens us with boycotts and slanders us in the EU and United States. This time much more is at stake financially: Oil sands oil exports are on track to be worth some $200-billion per year by the end of this decade, making it our biggest export commodity by far. And this time the case to be made is a relative slam dunk. Not one condemnation that paints the oil sands as uniquely wicked stands up to scrutiny.
True, an open-pit mining operation is never pretty, and some oil sands lands — the one-40th where the bitumen is near the surface — do involve tearing up the surface. But why not publicize the fact that all the mined oil sands land by law must be rehabilitated, and that — to all but purists — the rehabilitated land will typically be much improved?
For starters, most of the lands in question are not particularly scenic — to the contrary, they are largely low-grade forest, and also often tarred — on hot days, the tar seeps into rivers. (That’s why the lands were historically called “tar sands,” rather than the sanitized “oil sands” the industry now uses.) Oil sands lands are useful in caulking canoes but less than ideal for silviculture. Some of the land would be deemed “contaminated” by the Canada-Wide Standard for Petroleum Hydrocarbons in Soil had it been left in its present state by man instead of by nature.
After the oil companies mine each parcel of land — this might take as little as five years — the remediation starts — perhaps another 10 years — after which the land will generally be put to a higher industrial or recreational use. Gateway Hill, a 257-acre parcel that is the first fully reclaimed area in the oil sands region, is today a rolling forested area with hiking trails and lookout points.
Thirty-nine 40ths of the oil sands region, however, contains bitumen too deep for open-pit mining. Here, the oil will be extracted by drilling — a process similar in scale to that seen in conventional oil fields around the world. Tell that to the Europeans and Americans who until now have been misled into thinking that oil sands development will lay waste Canada’s North, making it a giant scarred tar pit.
One of the most celebrated wrongs involving the oil sands involved the accidental death of 500 ducks that landed in its tailing ponds — accidental because a severe snow storm prevented oil company employees from reaching their posts in time to detonate cannons to scare off the ducks. This was the warning system’s first failure in three decades.
Nevertheless, an improved warning system is now in place.
Regrettable as the one-time loss of those ducks was, it pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of birds routinely lost to wind turbines each year — over these the critics of the oil sands offer not a peep. The 500 ducks, in fact, are the only lasting environmental harm known to have resulted from the oil sands over their history. Those tailings ponds — ugly and potentially dangerous though they are — to date have demonstrated no harm to air or water quality, or to human health. None of this argues against greater diligence — the oil sands have fared as well as they have, despite their massive scale, only because of past steps taken to safeguard public health and the environment. Neither does this argue for vilification of an industry with a record of responsibility.
Of course, the reason the oil sands have lately become so huge an issue is the presumed danger to the planet from carbon dioxide. That’s why 50 members of the U.S. Congress wrote Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last year, warning that expanding the existing Canada-U.S. Keystone pipeline “has the potential to undermine America’s clean energy future and international leadership on climate change,” and why the EU’s Climate Change Commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, indicated this week she will effectively ban oil sands oil.
And that’s why, Mr. Harper, your defence of the oil sands requires you to lead on climate change, too, by bringing your fellow G8 leaders up to date on global warming science. As I am confident you already know, no compelling evidence whatsoever indicates that carbon dioxide — a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas necessary for plant growth — poses a danger to the planet. The only “evidence” has come from myriad computer models, all of which subsequently failed to work.
Blowing the whistle on global warming would not only be good for the Canadian economy, it would also be good politics. Although your G8 colleagues may not know that global warming is a scare whose time has passed, the majority of the citizens of their countries do — this Emperor has no clothes. Even in the United States, which has a true-believing global warming activist President in Barack Obama, most don’t buy it. Even most U.S. Democrats don’t buy it.
If a leader does speak up — as happened when Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, told Czechs that global warming is a fraud — public opinion will swing in his favour. Only 11% of Czechs now buy the global warming theory.
Mr. Harper, we didn’t hire you to duck as Canada’s reputation is trashed. We elected you to stand up for Canada.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and author of The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud.
This article first appeared in the Financial Post.