Oh, the oil sands! The biggest economic project and generator of employment in Canada in the past decade just can’t seem to catch a break. National Geographic, the New York Times and documentaries on France’s public television have all taken swings at it. It’s an easy target, but Albertans are getting rather sick of all of the negative publicity, particularly when the mudslinging is based on fiction, not fact

Of course, there is a lot to be concerned about. At best, the oil sands’ impact on the environment is minimal; at worst, it’s a nightmare. The truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. But there has been a lack of good information — both from the oil sands producers and from the environmental lobbyists — as to the true impact.

Now, the environmental hate-on for the oil sands is creeping into an unlikely region: rural Montana, some 2,000 kilometres to the south.

The dust-up has to do with the transport of major equipment by Imperial Oil for its oil sands project in northern Alberta. The Korean-made equipment will travel by ship to Portland, Oregon, and up the Columbia River on barges. From there, it enters land at the port of Lewiston, Idaho, and travels the rest of the 2,000 kilometres to northern Alberta by highway.

But in a tiny rural valley near Missoula, Montana, opposition is mounting. The equipment — shipped in more than 200 modules, each three storeys tall, 24 feet wide and nearly the length of a football field — would have to pass through the tight highways along the famed Blackfoot River. This particular valley is known for its pristine environment and world-renowned trout fishing. It was also featured in the movie A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford.

It’s a classic case of NIMBYism (“not in my back yard”) to suggest that the equipment should not be allowed to pass through the Blackfoot River Valley. If a proper environmental assessment finds that the region would sustain no environmental damage, Imperial Oil will be given the goahead. But the residents of the area will do everything they can to prevent it. One activist in the region is threatening to lie down on the highway!

Adding to the confusion surrounding the debate is a lot of inaccurate information being spewed out by opponents to the transport. A story in the New York Times back in December quotes one of the activists, writer and novelist Rick Bass. According to Bass (a self-appointed expert on the impact of the oil sands): “The tar sands are the biggest generator of climate change on the planet.”

Perhaps Bass needs a crash course in the oil sands before he makes foolish comments like this that get printed in the New York Times.

Production of bitumen from the oil sands does emit carbon, but even taken as a group of projects in their entirety, all of the oil sands mines in Alberta do not emit as much carbon as the coal-fuelled electrical facilities in at least half a dozen US states. As Derek Burney wrote in the November 2010 issue of Policy Options: “The carbon imprint of coal-fired plants in the US is 64 times that of the oil sands.” Furthermore, the vast majority of new projects in the oil sands are the in situ variety, which through technological advances manage to extract bitumen from the ground with a fraction of the carbon emissions of the older kind of mines and virtually no impact on the boreal forest. The giant, open-pit mines, while still there and expanding, are rapidly becoming the minority. Yet because they make horrifying pictures, they attract all of the attention.

The negative publicity isn’t just from Montana, New York or France, either. The governments of Quebec and Ontario were quick to throw Alberta under the environmental bus at the ill-fated Copenhagen round of climate change talks a year ago. (Perhaps there should be a round of talks about the environmental damage caused by hydro projects.)

No one in Alberta wants to hide from the environmental issues surrounding the oil sands. But on the other hand, some balance is required. This is the missing link. The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel, in a report released in December, blasted both the Alberta and Canadian federal governments for not providing sufficient regulatory capacity. But the report also failed to support the notion that air, water and land quality surrounding the oil sands is as bad as most of the environmental lobby groups would have us believe.

Alberta’s provincial government acted immediately on the report. Environment Minister Rob Renner acknowledged that the province must increase oversight in order to win credibility for its claim that the oil sands are being developed in a sustainable manner. The province is establishing a panel of experts to advise the government on how to build a decent monitoring and reporting system, and has pledged to make monitoring data publicly accessible.

This is what is needed. Not needed are the myths and misconceptions that are propagated by opponents. Maybe Montana’s novelist should stick to what he knows best: fiction.

Photo: Shutterstock

Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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