Tar Sands Sanity

Late last week a supporter sent me a Vancouver Sun article that declared the end of the oilsands boom. Apparently the markets have done what legions of environmentalists, concerned citizens, First Nations and dead ducks couldn’t. With oil prices a third of what they were in July the boom days of Fort McMurray are over and we should all rejoice. Or should we?

I remember hearing similar arguments about gas prices and peoples’ driving habits. While the BC carbon tax of 2 per litre had a small effect, the effect of gas prices leaping to  $130 per litre was huge. Maybe we should sit back and let market corrections take care of our environment. No need for pesky carbon taxes and regulations.

Sadly, there is no real evidence that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will gently move us towards a greener future without government’s collective intervention. Yes, change must come, but how we manage that change will make (or break) our future.

It wasn’t too long ago when talk of rising oil prices were a cause for optimism among environmentalists. As oil got more expensive (as the market says it must – we are running out of the stuff) people would find ways to move away from their fossil fuel dependence. We didn’t realize that upping the price of oil could make polluting more profitable.

Then came the tar sands. When oil was $30 per barrel the tar sands were a marginal resource. It just wasn’t economical to pump the Athabasca river dry and burn all the natural gas it took to steam the oil out of the ground. Down in Texas all they had to do was dig a hole and the oil would come gushing out. Up in Alberta we had to dig up four  tonnes of earth just to get a barrel.

It is different now. As oil gets less plentiful it becomes more economical to exploit previously marginal resource, and these resources, by their very nature, are more remote and require more energy to extract them. Exploiting them is necessarily more damaging to the environment.

Present economic conditions may have temporarily slowed the growth of the tar sands, but we can’t rely on the forces of supply and demand and whims of speculators to protect our global life support system. Alberta’s oil producers should be made to pay the real cost of the damage they do to Canada’s environment and their contribution to global warming. This means paying for their carbon emissions and for cleaning up their toxic legacy.

The current lull in Tar Sands development gives us the opportunity to put in place measures that force the Tar Sands (and all industry) to move down a more sustainable path. It’s not time to rejoice, but to make sure our calls for sanity are heard.

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