“Mommy, did you hear the news? They fixed the oil sands.”
My nine-year-old son explained to me over dinner the other day what he’d seen on TV: “There are nice people who have fixed it and they’ve figured everything out so that all the nature is fine because after they get the oil they pat dirt back on and plant flowers and trees. Even the butterflies have come back.”
In the past year, the oil sands industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to convince Canadians that the world’s single largest industrial development and the fastest growing source of Canada’s global warming pollution is being “fixed.” This advertising blitz has been reinforced by our federal government’s taxpayer-funded advertising campaign and, recently, by former Suncor CEO Rick George’s highly publicized book tour.
We all want to believe it’s possible to just “fix it.” Unfortunately, slick ads claiming a cure for the environment offer nothing but a false sense of security for Canadians. In reality, little has changed on the ground.
We keep hearing that the damaged land is being reclaimed, that we’re going to make a lake district out of toxic sludge pits known as tailings ponds. A wetland-dominated forest out of old mines.
How many toxic ponds have actually been certified as reclaimed? Zero.
How much land has been successfully reclaimed? 0.1 per cent.
There are still no laws governing the amount of toxins spewed into the water. There’s no plan to reduce global warming pollution. There are no hard limits around the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the Athabasca River, yet the oil sands are allowed to divert from the river the equivalent of seven times the annual water use by the city of Edmonton. The oil sands have not been “fixed.” Just the opposite.
This year, the Harper government eliminated many of the laws that protect fish habitat and clean water that have been used in the past to trigger environmental assessments of major industrial projects. Now Big Oil has a free shot on goal to dramatically expand the oil sands without all those pesky environmental laws in the way.
But here’s the most frustrating part: We can actually clean up the oil sands. Companies have technology today that would eliminate any new tailings ponds. But as one company executive told me recently, they won’t deploy the technology until regulation forces all companies to do so, creating a level playing field.
A greener tar sands should be the baseline, not the finish line. We must reduce our society’s dependence on oil and begin the hard work of building a low-carbon economy. That means coming up with a strategy to invest in renewable energy and to increase the number of energy efficiency initiatives.
To do this, of course, we need to put a price on pollution and demand higher royalties from Big Oil, initiatives that the Harper and Alberta governments have been reluctant to do.
To truly fix the oil sands, we need our government to actually govern – that is, to protect the public interest by regulating polluting companies. Otherwise, it’s hard to make the financial case for companies to spend the money to improve their environmental performance when their competitors may not.
Let’s get oil companies to spend their millions in profits on long-term solutions, instead of misleading advertising campaigns.
Tzeporah Berman is the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge.