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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Mythosphere and Stelmach's Washington Speech on Oil Sands

I read Premier’s Stelmach’s speech to the Energy Forum in Washington yesterday. I see some of the media framing a specific issue from the speech and amplifying it for effect. I am not complaining because the MSM has often been able to decide what the “news” is and what isn’t. They used to get to decide that for the rest of us before Blogs came along.

The story line this time is that there is an alleged “myth” that “…oil sands production comes at too high an environmental cost.” According to Premier Stelmach the myth is gaining traction and he notes that some quarters in the US are trying to slow down or even stop oil sands development…and the Premier said he sees that as unrealistic.

The truth is that while we have a start and maybe our hearts are in the right place, we are not doing enough to mitigate or avoid environmental degradation in our energy industry. Government has bee too cosy with the industry and not doing it job. It is not just about jobs, as important as they are. It is not just about creating those jobs, as important as they are. It is about responsible and sustainable development that enhances the environment while we create wealth. Either or is old school and not enough any more.

I don’t see any Alberta politician of any party, including the Greens, articulating this reality with authenticity and authority that presents an informed and genuine concern.

Stelmach touched on some key points in the rest of the Washington speech. He said we have the only significantly large and proven reserves where there is substantial and growing supply development in a country with a stable government and proximity to the US market. If the Americans don’t want the oil then the Asians will. These are facts and market realities - not threats.

There were much more interesting and balanced aspects to the speech than these obvious facts that Alberta is the key to secure, reliable and economical continental energy supply.

On the environmental side, Stelmach suggested the pending California Low Carbon Fuel Standard must be designed to facilitate environmentally friendly investment at the point of production. That is a positive suggestion of using technology and innovation as a way to adapt the industry and the market to reach the desired carbon targets.

Stelmach then states the key policy position that has been overlooked when the MSM take of the story was decided. He said “The bottom line is: in Alberta, we do not proceed with development at the expense of the environment.” That policy statement is not as supported by the facts as it ought to be. It is currently under dispute with the recently launched Federal Court Appeal of the Imperial Oil Kearl oil sands project approval by the EUB.
There was commentary about government and industry working together to ensure quality standards for land, air and water. There is a long way to go to getting this policy and regulation right and we are far form doing the job needed on water use, land reclamation and air quality. But Alberta is actively engaged and not an eco-rogue state. The question is, are we engaged and focused and forceful enough on the bigger ecological demands or doing just enough to save face but not the planet?

The oil sands are about to become a geopolitical football at so many levels. It is going to take a strong focused and determined political leader to ensure we take and keep a long view of responsible and sustainable development of this resource. The goal is not to get rich at any cost. The goal has to be to exploit this resource opportunity in ways that serves the societal needs of the province and the energy needs of the continent. Albertan’s development of their oil sands has to go way beyond those goals and ultimately serve the higher integrated ecological imperatives of the planet.

Nothing less is acceptable.