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Albertans are the owners Add to ...

There are few more credible authorities on the planning of Alberta's oil sands than Peter Lougheed, the iconic former premier under whom development took flight.

Nor could Mr. Lougheed's latest caution against proceeding too quickly and haphazardly with new projects, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, be more timely - coming as it does amid signs that the oil industry's slowdown may be shorter than expected, and that Alberta may soon be headed into another boom period.

Mr. Lougheed, the Progressive Conservative premier who fought valiantly against the national energy program of Prime Minister Trudeau in the early 1980s, can hardly be accused of indifference toward Alberta's economic interests.

While he displays a commitment to environmental responsibility that has too often been lacking in the leaders who have succeeded him, his concern about the pace of development is rooted in his belief that the province must exert strong control over its economic future.

It is Albertans, he says, who own the oil sands - not the companies that develop them. "We went through a number of years recently where the ownership was subjugated to the wishes of the petroleum industry, who are basically lessees. I'm hoping that will change, and that there will be a reaffirmation by the [provincial]government of its ownership position."

Central to this reaffirmation, Mr. Lougheed argues, should be a focus on a single new development at a time, rather than the simultaneous green-lighting of multiple projects that became commonplace under the government of Premier Ralph Klein.

His logic is sound. What he refers to as "orderly development" would serve an immediate environmental and social good - reducing emissions while limiting growth to a level at which costs can be contained, preventing some Albertans from effectively being priced out of their own province.

The long-term economic benefits of the one-at-a-time approach might be even greater. It would allow the province to chart a steadier path of growth, facilitating the further diversification of its economy, while allowing time for the development of technologies that could improve efficiency, in addition to reducing development's ecological impact.

A slower pace of development might also permit Alberta to take proper ownership of its resources by making sure that the oil extracted within the province is also upgraded there.

Although it has been estimated that approximately two-thirds of the bitumen from the oil sands is currently upgraded in Alberta, a growing trend has seen it transported to the southern United States for that purpose. If that continues, it will cost the province many thousands of potential jobs. As in other resource industries, it is better for Canada if value is added in Canada.

Here, again, Mr. Lougheed comes back to the issue of ownership, arguing that Alberta's interests should be protected in development agreements with private companies.

"We're the owner," he says, "and certainly with ownership comes the ability to require upgrading in our own province."

Previous calls for more sustainable and focused development have mostly fallen on deaf ears. There has been an unwillingness on the part of Alberta's government, and not enough pressure from the public, to exercise greater restraint. That is owing, perhaps, to a lingering suspicion of any attempts to regulate the oil industry's growth, dating back to heavy-handed federal attempts to control it.

Mr. Lougheed expresses optimism that Albertans are coming around. If not, the clear-mindedness of their province's fiercest advocates and most accomplished leaders should help convince them.

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