Doomsday: Alberta stands accused
A huge fight between East and West -- over the oil sands -- is just starting
NICHOLAS KÖHLER | October 8, 2007 |
Left unfettered, Alberta's energy sector will, by the end of this century, transform the southern part of the province into a desert and its north into a treeless, toxic swamp. Driven both by global warming and oil and gas developments, temperatures in Alberta will soar by as much as eight degrees. The Athabasca River will slow to a trickle, parching the remainder of the province's forests and encouraging them to burst into flame, generating vast quantities of CO2. "They're going to be the architects of their own destruction," says journalist William Marsden, whose new book outlines the environmental threats posed by Alberta's energy industry.
Even now, fish pulled from the Athabasca downstream of the oil sands taste of gasoline and smell of burning galoshes in the fry pan. The landscape is perforated by more than 300,000 oil and gas wells. Water in some areas to the south can be set alight with a match, likely due to coal-bed methane developments. Doctors administering to Aboriginal communities not far from the oil sands report high rates of thyroid conditions and rare diseases such as cancer of the bile duct. Some from those communities have been employed at the oil sands raking in the carcasses of ducks floating on vast pools of rotten water, the by-product of the sands' oil-extraction methods.
Such are the claims contained in Marsden's upcoming Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada(And Doesn't Seem to Care), which presents a scenario almost too frightening to contemplate and suggests Alberta may already be too far gone for redemption -- indeed, that it is environmentally doomed. "When you start digging up an area equivalent to the state of Florida, when you start carpet-bombing your province with oil and gas wells, and at the same time, you've got global warming drying up the glaciers and your rivers -- you're kind of looking at a doomsday scenario," he says. "It sounds bizarre, but it's an absolute possibility that they could be literally destroying themselves."
Marsden argues Alberta's political leadership has consistently neglected -- in an almost willful, pathological way -- to curb the destruction wrought by industry. Former premier Ralph Klein for years rejected placing controls on Alberta's energy sector and, according to Marsden, ordered the dismantling of oversight bodies that might have monitored the degradation, the extent of which remains somewhat unclear today as a result. Marsden charges the province with marginalizing scientists who sound warnings on the environment, quoting Rod Love, Klein's long-time chief of staff, dismissing them as "flakes."
The book is bound to enrage Alberta and its energy sector. "Why are Albertans so stupid?" Marsden asks an Alberta scientist at one point in the book. Designed to be provocative, Stupid to the Last Drop will come under intense fire as an exercise in fearmongering and West-bashing by a Montreal journalist. Yet it will be applauded by others who fear that the environment gets short shrift in Alberta. "I think it's useful to have books like that -- it scares people, I guess," says David Keith, an expert on carbon capture at the University of Calgary.
Still, the fight Marsden is picking with Alberta may be a harbinger of a more titanic one to come. Alberta has become the country's economic engine -- churning out money at the same time it spews huge emissions -- and the rest of Canada, whether out of jealousy or genuine concern, may soon demand environmental controls be placed on the province, the country's worst industrial greenhouse gas emitter. Experts, from constitutional scholars to former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, are predicting a battle, and at the centre of that coming feud is the issue of how far the federal government can go in controlling a resource Alberta owns. It's a fight some fear may tear Canada apart.
Known mainly for his reporting on organized crime in Canada, Marsden has written a polemic on the Alberta environment that looks at first blush to be a departure. Marsden disagrees. "Frankly, I think what's going on in Alberta is a crime," he says. "You get these kinds of political factions and gangsters, almost, who have literally taken over a province -- and are reducing it to catastrophic shape."
The riches generated by Alberta's energy sector are astounding, the stuff of breathless business stories and promises by the likes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the province is on the cusp of becoming an "energy superpower." Earlier this year, Calgary-based EnCana earned profits of $6.4 billion, a record-breaking sum. The provincial government's last budget showed a surplus of $8.5 billion. So dynamic is Alberta's energy boom that it's become, what with Ontario's struggling manufacturing sector, the real power in the economy. Remove Alberta from the Canadian economy, some say, and the country would now be in recession.
There is no denying, however, that the wealth comes at a huge environmental cost. In a rollicking, wry style, Stupid to the Last Drop outlines that environmental degradation, as well as the energy industry's appetite for wild schemes. Marsden dredges up, for example, a little-known plot hatched by an American geologist in the late 1950s to free oil from the tar sands by detonating a nuclear device beneath an Alberta creek, a plan that came surprisingly close to execution. And yet, Marsden argues, what is going on right now is almost as outrageous.
Consider the millions in cubic metres of water that three oil sands projects -- 20 more are in the works or pending approval -- extract from the Athabasca River each year. The water, which in heated form is used to melt the bitumen free of the sands, is crucial; between two and six barrels of water are required to produce a single barrel of oil. Oil sands outfits are sucking 215.2 million cubic metres of water a year, Marsden writes, and are now licensed to draw 349 million cubic metres of water a year, twice what's required for the city of Calgary. Extractions from the Athabasca could triple in the next decade.
As a result of both global warming, which is melting the mountain glaciers that nourish Alberta's waterways, and oil sands extractions, flow in the Athabasca has been reduced by 30 per cent since 1970. By 2020, the oil sands could use as much as half the river's flow in winter, a time when it is at its lowest ebb and fish populations are most stressed. At such levels, says the Pembina Institute's Chris Severson-Baker, "You run the risk of killing the ecosystem." More, Marsden cites scientific research that suggests the 20th century was unusually kind to Alberta in water terms -- a desert in its south is a real possibility, he says -- and warns that industry may be taking advantage of a natural anomaly.