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Opinion The oil sands are complicated, like Neil Young himself

Celebrities have been slagging Canada's oil sands for years. They're an easy target, after all. But recent comments about the development by expat rocker Neil Young seem to have struck a particularly sensitive chord – which, of course, was the point.

Mr. Young, in turn, has been slagged himself, and, on many fronts, justifiably so. His contention that he didn't need oil because he was a rock star dripped with arrogance and condescension. Most Canadians have no choice but to drive around in clunkers fuelled by gasoline. They don't have a rock star's bank account.

And the Toronto-born legend didn't help his cause by getting some of his anti-oil-sands facts wrong. All the production from the development does not go to the polluting giant China, as he contended. As pointed out by The Globe and Mail's fine energy reporter, Shawn McCarthy, nearly all of it is consumed in Canada and the United States, which Mr. Young has called home since the 1960s.

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The iconic musician also stated that the oil sands emit the same amount of carbon dioxide on a daily basis as all the cars in Canada. Again, he was incorrect. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and government agencies, emissions from cars and trucks are almost double those generated by the oil sands.

While railing about the devastating impact the oil industry is having on First Nations, he conveniently ignored the fact that same sector is the biggest employer of aboriginals in the country. There were other examples of errors and overheated rhetoric (comparing the oil sands to Hiroshima, for instance) that did nothing to bolster his case.

At the same time, Mr. Young was not wrong about everything, and we must acknowledge that.

His contention that treaties in Canada have not been honoured, in many cases, is indisputable. The treatment of First Nations peoples in Canada is a blight on our record as a country. Mr. Young is crossing the country, singing and raising money, in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation's court challenge against Shell Canada's plan to expand its mining operations north of Fort McMurray. The trek is dubbed the Honour the Treaties Tour.

Mr. Young, 68, has condemned Shell's proposal as environmentally treacherous. He may be right. As Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta, has pointed out in his blog for Maclean's, the joint panel review that approved the Jackpine Mine expansion highlighted the risks.

In its findings, the panel said the question facing it and the government was "whether the significant adverse environmental effects [of the project] are justified in the circumstances." In ultimately giving the proposal its blessing, the federal cabinet decided that they were. It would seem, however, that Mr. Young and the Chipewyan people may have a legitimate concern about the mine's potential impact on their way of life.

To completely dismiss Mr. Young's criticism of the environmental impact of the oil sands is also disingenuous. They are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. The toxic tailings ponds and the general havoc the extraction process has wreaked on the general environment is an unsettling image – one that prompted Mr. Young to compare it to the devastation left by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

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Largely because of the oil sands, Canada's GHG emissions are set to rise dramatically after 2020 unless something is done to curb them. Industry and the government in Alberta deserve to be criticized for not doing enough to cut CO2 rates in the province.

That said, the iconic musician's attack on Canada's environmental record might have been easier to swallow had it been accompanied by a similar critique of the eco-profile of his adopted country. GHG emissions from production of heavy crude in his home state of California alone are similar to those from the oil sands, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates. The United States as a whole produces twice as much oil as Canada does.

Like the singer himself, this issue is complicated and open to criticism. So be it. Mr. Young has made a storied career singing about causes that are important to him. He'll burn out before he fades away.

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