TZEPORAH BERMAN

No, Minister Oliver, the oil sands have not become 'green'

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Many Canadians must have wondered if George Orwell was alive and well this week as they read that the Alberta oil sands were being pitched to U.S. officials as “green” by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

“Canada is the environmentally responsible choice for the U.S. to meet its energy needs in oil for years to come,” the minister told an audience in Chicago – a message he repeated over and over in his U.S. tour, part of a calculated mission to associate Alberta bitumen with ecological benefits.

Story continues below ad

At a time when climate scientists are urgently telling us to significantly scale back the burning of fossil fuels, having a minister promote exactly the opposite really does feel like being told that two plus two equals five.

Yet this is what we’ve come to expect from our federal government, which, as documents released this week through an Access to Information request revealed, has “aligned” its interests with the pipeline industry instead of with the voters who elected it. And Joe Oliver has emerged as the most prominent spokesman for this alignment.

It was Mr. Oliver who, a year ago, opened an offensive by trying to label those opposed to the Enbridge Gateway pipeline proposal as “radicals,” ignoring the deep public opposition to the project.

It was Mr. Oliver who stood on a podium with the Alberta energy minister to pitch a fossil fuel-driven national energy strategy based on data that would vastly increase emissions and contribute dramatically to rising atmospheric temperatures.

It was Mr. Oliver who claimed that the massive and growing toxic tailings ponds will be so clean “you’ll be able to drink from them,” while more secret documents recently released confirmed they are currently leaking more and more toxins into the Alberta environment every day.

And now it is Mr. Oliver who this week is lobbying hard in the U.S. for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would export oil sands bitumen to the U.S. Gulf. His pitch is built on the argument that the pipeline would be filled with a product that is, ecologically, not much worse than the worst oil in the world.

Let’s be clear. Every independent study, including one from the U.S. Department of Energy, has found that the oil sands are one of the world’s dirtiest forms of oil, producing three times more emissions per barrel produced and 22 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil (when their full life cycle of emissions, including burning them in a vehicle, is included). While Mr. Oliver claimed this week that the oil sands were ‘getting greener’ citing statistics that showed per-barrel emissions dropping between 1990 and 2010, he failed to mention that since 2010 per barrel emissions have increased by 21 per cent.

The oil is getting dirtier due to an increasing focus on deep oil sands development using steam, which causes more greenhouse-gas emissions. What Mr. Oliver also failed to note is that even his government’s own reports from Environment Canada have said that Canada will not meet its climate-pollution targets because of oil sands expansion. In fact, climate pollution from the oil sands has doubled in the last decade and is predicted to double again in the next decade if all the new development is allowed to go ahead.

The truth is we still have no federal rules to reduce climate pollution from the oil sands.

Mr. Oliver will no doubt also be spinning hard on the oil and gas regulations his government has promised Canada every year for the past six years. The true test of whether those regulations are real, if they do emerge, is whether they actually reduce overall emissions or simply allow industry to pay a modest penalty into a fund and keep on polluting.

Mr. Oliver argues that the oil sands are a small part of global emissions. Climate pollution from oil sands expansion is projected to hit 104 megatonne equivalents of C02 by 2020. That’s like putting an additional 20 million cars on the road in North America. That exceeds the combined emissions from 85 nations.

The very real pollution that Minister Oliver is promoting has parallels to the pollution taking hold in our public discourse today in Canada. Certain quarters of our political establishment have chosen to import a style of truth-challenged debate where facts matter less than how many times talking points are repeated and how loudly.

So Ottawa muzzles scientists who might introduce facts inconvenient to ideology, MPs are given no choice but to get out there day after day and make false allegations about their opponents, and reporters become so cynical about the whole ‘game’ that they too infect the public with lower expectations for those we send to Ottawa.

The result is that many now tolerate a minister’s Orwellian statements as normal while the rest of us are left to wonder when we will come to our senses and return to the conversation about how we make the necessary rapid transition to clean energy and an innovation economy in Canada, taking advantage of the huge resources we have to do that.

Tzeporah Berman is an environmental author and co-founder of ForestEthics

Topics: