Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 8, 2008
Magnitude of oilsands 'footprint' surprises visiting Church leaders
Delegation concludes churches need to push for emphasis on renewable energy
THE PEMBINA INSTITUTE | DAVID DODGE
Looking south towards the Suncore upgrader with the Athabasca River on the left, Church leaders who recently visited the oilsands say we will have to cut our fossil fuel consumption in order to leave a habitable planet for our descendants.
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
FORT MCMURRAY - After a seven-day tour of the Alberta oilsands development, a delegation of Church and aboriginal leaders is urging Canada to develop a transition plan to sustainable energy.
"We agreed that we're driving this train," said KAIROS: Ecumenical Justice Initiatives executive director Mary Corkery. "We fuel the demand for oil and we have to be part of the solution."
Beginning in September, Church leaders will be asking Ottawa to develop a national energy strategy.
That strategy would place greater emphasis on renewable energy sources, tighter environmental regulations that govern tarsands development and long-term independent studies of the health effects of tar sands development in native communities, particularly in and around Fort Chipewyan, said Corkery.
Church leaders aren't necessarily asking that development slow down, Corkery said.
"So far, people are also conscious that they want to protect those people who are working. A lot of people depend on those jobs right now," she said.
KAIROS brought together 10 Church leaders, including the new president of the Canadian Council of Churches Bruce Adema, and Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg.
Three aboriginal leaders and southern partners and three KAIROS staff also participated in the May 21-27 tour that took them to Edmonton, Fort McMurray, various indigenous communities and Fort Chipewyan.
Weisgerber said he was "surprised by the magnitude of the whole business," describing the "footprint on the environment," such as the use of water and the creation of waste products as "huge."
"What we were all very conscious about is this is not what's going on in Fort McMurray," Weisgerber said. "This is about us. There is such a desire and demand for oil and the demand is created by us."
"We all have to take steps to reduce our consumption drastically if we want to leave behind a habitable planet for our grandchildren," said Dana Bush, a vegetation ecologist who represented the Quakers on the tour.
A Calgary-based biologist, Bush works for environmental consulting companies that work with the oil companies.
"People up there are talking about possible technical solutions," she said. "There are a lot of very creative people."
"All of the people that we talked to are aware of the costs and benefits of the development," Bush said. "It wasn't nearly as polarized as I worried it might be."
"We did hear a fair amount of saying that it's the other guy's fault," she said. Government was blamed for not raising the bar on standards; tail pipe emissions, not the oilsands, are to blame for C02 levels; the problem is China not Canada, were some of the arguments she said she heard.
The tour, which took about a year and a half to organize, included meetings with the whole range of oilsands stakeholders from aboriginal communities worried about adverse health effects; aboriginal communities benefiting from contracts and employment; labour representatives; community leaders in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan; and oil company executives.
"Nobody is denying there's a problem," Weisgerber said, noting a concern that "some voices in the discussion have more weight than other voices."
"There is pressure to proceed before the problems will be solved," he said. "We don't know whether ultimately they will be solved."
He also expressed sympathy for the people of Fort McMurray. "They feel they have been maligned mercilessly in the press."
Because of the importance of the oilsands for the economy, "the industry seems to get more of an ear than anyone else," he said.
Corkery said she was pleased to see the oil companies seem to know the problems and understand the risks. "They feel they are doing everything that can be done and that science will come up with solutions."
"I don't believe that's the case, partly because of the tremendous pressure for expansion," she said.
The growth of development has put tremendous pressure on local infrastructure such as hospitals, roads and housing, she said.
When the recession hit, the oil companies chopped 17,000 jobs, she said. But now that the oil price is rising, development is gearing up.
"We need jobs," she said. "We need good sustainable jobs, but plans for job creation are not necessarily best left to oil companies."
Oil companies are about "making a profit," she said, not about creating energy or jobs.
"It's not a job creation plan," she said. "It does not have built-in sustainability with finite resources."
She would like to see wind, sun and thermal energy developed, but she admitted Canada could not suddenly switch to these alternative sources.
"We reject the false choice between the environment and jobs," she said. "There are no jobs on a dead planet."
"We are not calling for stopping this kind of development," she said. "We are saying that Canada needs a plan."
Governments have a vested interest in taxes and royalties, she said, noting both governments and individuals are "addicted to oil."