Canadian church leaders are going to take a hard look at how Alberta's oil sands are affecting aboriginals, communities and the environment.
An ecumenical delegation wants to determine whether the oil sands are environmentally sustainable and are being developed in a socially responsible way, says Mary Corkery, executive director of the Kairos social justice group.
"This is an issue of great importance to Canada and the world and we need to be present and see what our role should be in working for just and sustainable development," she said Tuesday from Toronto.
"We want to go there because we feel that we need to have a dialogue before developing a clear advocacy position."
The delegation includes leaders from the Anglican, Christian Reformed, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and United churches, as well as representatives from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Other groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada are also part of the delegation.
During a week-long tour that is to begin Wednesday, the religious leaders are to meet with environmentalists and aboriginals from area communities such as Fort Chipewyan, where some residents believe oil sands pollution in the Athabasca River is hurting their health.
Talks are to be held with workers who make a living in the energy industry, including people who have moved to the region from other parts of Canada and the world.
The delegation is also to fly over the oil sands, tour Suncor Energy's operation and meet with Alberta government officials.
The church leaders plan to share their impressions with their congregations. Kairos then hopes to reach a consensus for a presentation before the federal government as early as this fall, Mr. Corkery said.
Kairos published a position paper last year that questioned the amount of taxes Ottawa allows the oil sands industry to defer on the capital cost of projects. It estimated the federal government subsidizes the oil and natural gas sector by about $1-billion a year.
The churches want politicians to indicate when the government will shift spending away from big oil and toward green, renewable energy.
Bishop Susan Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada said the trip is not about tarring the energy industry or the oil sands.
Ms. Johnson said the religious leaders appreciate that what they are investigating is complex and controversial and that they must weigh the need to develop more secure energy with concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
"Is this a cost-effective way for us to be extracting energy and what are the long-term consequences for us?" Ms. Johnson asked from Winnipeg. "I want to see this with my own eyes."
The provincial government says it welcomes the visit. There are briefings planned with the Energy, Environment and Sustainable Resources departments.
Alberta Energy spokesman Bob McManus said the government wants a chance to counter arguments made by oil sands critics, including groups such as Greenpeace, which tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to force investors in Norwegian energy-giant StatoilHydro to leave the province.
"Information about oil sands development often is not complete and sometimes is not in context, and by having people come to Alberta to see firsthand what is happening, they can see the progress that is being made to reduce the environmental footprint of oil sands development," Mr. McManus said.
Greenpeace calls the oil sands "the destructive Alberta tar sands" and maintains the projects produce the dirtiest oil in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the last year, the oil sands have attracted a growing number of visits by people concerned about environmental viability. Those visitors have included such celebrities as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Hollywood actor Neve Campbell.
Suncor Energy spokeswoman Brenda Erskine said the company will give the church leaders its standard tour. It includes presentations on how areas that have been mined are reclaimed and explains ways Suncor is trying to mitigate ill effects on the environment, including the monitoring of water and land.
Ms. Johnson said she and her colleagues will be thorough in their review and know they will have a huge amount of information to sort through.
"I know that there is no simple answer," she said. "I know that there are conflicting claims and interests.
"What I'm hoping is to have some kind of moment of clarity about how do we balance all of these things."