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Wednesday, 22 January 2014 14:14

Oil sands concerns require serious debate, not rhetoric

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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He is ranked at Number 34 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest artists, above Michael Jackson and John Lennon, and he was the 14th most popular choice on the CBC’s list of 50 greatest Canadians.

But Neil Young’s week-long Honour the Treaties tour to various Canadian cities, which ended on Jan. 19 in Calgary after previous stops in Toronto, Winnipeg and Regina, did not endear him to quite a few Canadians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall as well as the entire oil sands industry.
The purpose of Young’s Honour the Treaties concert series was to raise funds for a legal challenge by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) against Shell Canada’s proposed Jackpine oil sands expansion project.
The ACFN filed the legal application Jan. 3 in response to the release of the federal government’s decision statement on the project in December 2013. The expansion will increase the output of the Athabasca Oil Sands Project with 100,000 barrels per day.
According to the decision statement, the expansion project is “likely to cause significance adverse environmental effects” but it is considered to be “justified under the circumstances.” This decision relied heavily on the findings of the Joint Review Panel that was established by the federal Minister of the Environment and the Energy Resources Conservation Board to evaluate the project.
The panel supported the project due to its significant economic benefits for the region and the country, but noted it will have cumulative environmental effects on wetlands and old-growth forests, the various species such as migratory birds and caribou that are reliant on these habitats as well as on aboriginal traditional land use rights and culture.
The project will result in the loss of more than 10,000 hectares of wetlands, of which 85 per cent are peatlands that cannot be reclaimed. It will also require a 220kilometre diversion of the Muskeg River.
In its decision the panel expressed concerns over some of the methods that were used by Shell to evaluate the project’s effects on terrestrial resources and on the traditional land use, rights and culture of aboriginal people.
The ACFN has referred to its legal challenge as “drawing a line in the sand” and Young’s concerts were successful in raising more than the $75,000 goal. The tour certainly created some debate amongst Canadians about the oil sands, partially as a result of some of his controversial statements. He compared the bare land that results from an oil sand strip mining project to the wasteland of Hiroshima after a nuclear bomb was dropped on this Japanese city during the Second World War.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall felt Young has lost credibility as a result of this statement and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said “inflammatory rhetoric” from “protest-anthem rock stars” was unfortunate.
In media interviews Young said he was not opposed to oil sands development, but that he was hoping to promote debate about environmental concerns. CAPP expressed a similar sentiment when it called for constructive dialogue about the oil sands and energy issues in Canada.
Unfortunately last week’s Honour the Treaties tour and the responses to it was not an indication of the start of such an open discussion. Instead, it was just the latest round in the drawing of the battle lines between two opposing factions.
On Jan. 20, a group of prominent Canadian artists and scientists expressed support for Young’s position in an open letter that criticized the Harper government and oil executives. Environmental issues, especially related to climate change, have become the frontline of an ideological fight between the political right and left in Canada that leaves little room for scientific evidence and discussion.
The pace of resource development and how to use its development to the benefit of Canadian society while regulating environmental impacts is a key challenge facing the country.
This discussion should include issues such as alternative energy sources, emission standards and targets, a wealth fund to save a portion of non-renewable resource revenues and the development of a Canadian energy strategy.
The oil sands will be a key part of Canada’s future economic growth and it is therefore crucial to consider the pace of that industry’s development. The federal government’s sixth national report on climate change, which was submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2013, indicated Canada is set to miss its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020 with current policies and that emissions will continue to grow to 2030.
The sector with the most dramatic increase in emissions will be oil and gas, of which the oil sands is the main portion. Emissions from this sector is projected to grow from 109 megatonnes in 2005 to 177 megatonnes in 2030. The emissions from oil sands mining specifically is expected to triple over the 2005 to 2030 period.
According to this report the annual average surface air temperature over Canada’s landmass has warmed by about 1.7 degrees Celsius between 1948 and 2012, which is approximately twice the global average.
If this trend continues and if there is not a more serious national discussion about the country’s environmental policies, then concerns over statements by rock stars and other celebrities will be the least of Canada’s worries.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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