Making a case for the oil sands -

Making a case for the oil sands

Alberta Enterprise Group says oil sands are key to Canada’s economy


AP Photo / Jeff McIntosh

Back in 2007, the Alberta Enterprise Group, then a new business organization, sent a delegation to Washington as its first big initiative—only to be greeted by global warming activists dressed as polar bears. Three years later and those same environmental image problems have prompted the group to shift its focus from selling Alberta abroad to shoring up its image at home. “The challenge isn’t just in Washington and Europe,” says David MacLean, the group’s vice-president, “it’s right here in our own backyard.”

So this week the group brought a delegation of 50 to Parliament Hill to make the case that Alberta is centrally important to the Canadian economy, a case that might have seemed obvious in an Albertan Prime Minister’s Ottawa. MacLean chose a surprising comparison to illustrate what the oil sands mean to the country as a whole. “When they bailed out the banks last year, they said they were too big to fail,” he said. “I think Canada’s energy project is too big to fail. We need to get it right.”

MacLean wasn’t precise about his group’s view of the right policy mix. They accept the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector, but contend that Ottawa should rely mainly on “rewards for private-sector investment in technology.” Just now there’s no great sense of urgency on the file, since the Conservatives are committed to harmonizing with whatever approach the U.S. adopts, and progress in Washington toward a new emissions law is sluggish.

With few hard policy details to argue about, Canadian politicians—and not just Tories—welcomed the Albertans. “The reception has been wonderful,” MacLean said, “especially Michael Ignatieff’s office.” Maybe Alberta’s economic and political stature is better understood than the province’s lobbyists feared.


Making a case for the oil sands

  1. I don't think anyone with half a brain can deny the potential the tar sands have.
    My biggest beef with them is at what cost does this potential come? I'll admit I'm no engineer or anything but my biggest fear is the amount of water required to extract the oil: according to some of my family memebers that work for Natural Resources Canada they feel that we could very easily end up entirely draining certain areas of water, essentially creating deserts and that's a dreadful thought.

    HOwever it's good that these people have realized that the entire country isn't 100% sold on the tar sands and that a considerable amount of people feel that we need to make sure they get this right. Oil is fine and all, but like we've seen with the oil rig in the Gulf, it can come at a very, very high price.

    • "Can NOT deny"
      I wish there was an edit button

  2. It will take an environmental disaster the size of the Gulf Ouil Spill or the Exxon Valdez to get Albertans to think about the environment.

  3. Turning Canada into a petro-economy is wrong on a number of levels.

    Even if the Alberta Enterprise Group, or Stephen Harper, or whoever, thinks that climate change science is all a bunch of hooey, the fact remains that most of the world is seriously concerned about the effects of human-based climate change. If Canada continues with tar sands development, we risk becoming world pariahs. Measures such as trade sanctions may be imposed as punishment.

    And the world trend is away from petroleum consumption, not towards it. Oil is a finite resource, and people are aware of this. Investing in oil production now is like investing in horse-and-buggy manufacturing at the start of the age of the automobile.

    And an emphasis on petroleum development will inflate the Canadian dollar and cripple manufacturing in Canada. This may not bother the Alberta Enterprise Institute overmuch, but it's a concern for the millions of Canadians who aren't earning their living from the oil patch.

  4. I have to agree with these comments and add a note from a recent NRDC blog by Susan Casey_Lefkowitz noting: "For a long time, it has been clear that the Canadian government is failing to enforce the anti-pollution provisions of its federal Fisheries Act by allowing the tar sands tailings waste ponds to leak pollution into both surface waters and groundwater. The Alberta and Canadian governments are simply not taking enforcement action."

    The Beaver Lake Cree Nation sees the effects first hand – their water is undrinkable and they haven't seen a caribou in ten years. BLCN has launched a legal action based on the Canadian Constitution – and they are suing the federal and provincial governments to prevent further destruction of their traditional hunting, trapping and fishing lands. The lawsuit IS a tar sands stopper – because unlike other judicial reviews or legal efforts – a Supreme Court declaration that the 17,000+ permits (that have been issued to mega-oil companies) are unconstitutional will render the paper they are written on meaningless. The permits will be illegal.

    This legal action requires support – both moral and financial. The Co-operative Bank in Manchester, UK has thrown its support behind the Beaver Lake Cree – but the cost of winning a battle like this is high. The Beaver Lake Cree have put in everything they have, and efforts are under way to raise the funds they need to see this through to the end. There's more information at

  5. There is one when you are registered with intense debate. (This isn't free publicity intense debate, the check better be in the mail)

  6. The tar sands come at an unacceptable cost. Yes, they provide energy and (dangerous) jobs, but they also postpone investment in longer term solutions to our energy crisis: renewable, non-polluting forms of energy and the need to reduce consumption. It's like taking out another credit card to pay off other debts: the end result is going to be that much worse. The tar sands is the number one producer of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, producing more emissions than 10 million automobiles. They alone are the reason Canada is a backwater hold-out on climate change and the reason we as a nation have utterly failed to honour any international climate change commitments.

    Thankfully the tar sands are facing increasingly stiff opposition. One example is a legal case launched by the Beaver Lake Cree (BLC) Nation, near Lac La Biche, AB. Alberta's energy regulator (ERCB) has already issued over 17,000 permits to tar sands companies for development in BLC traditional territory. The BLC has filed suit that those permits are unconstitutional, because they have resulted in the virtual annihilation of their hunting and fishing rights through habitat destruction, soil, air and water contamination.

    If the BLC wins, those permits will be worthless, and the precedent will be set to freeze tar sands development. The BLC has a very real shot at winning their case.

    You can learn more about their suit at RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) at

  7. Hey, the Liberals aren't stupid.

    if they ever want to become a national party again, this whole perpetually shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan business has got to end. Damn right Ignatieff's office was uber-receptive. He'd be a fool not to be. Might not help himself out that much, but his successor, or maybe his successors successor, will thank him.

  8. Come on Canada, there has never been a better time to say to "the good ole USA" What are you doing about your oil sands problem? We see turtles and dolphins washing up on shore! That's a mighty big tailings pond you have on your hands.

  9. Obviously the oil sands, and our oil and gas sector in general, have an important part to play in our economic framework.

    But, to take MacLean's analogy, the banking sector is important as well – but when we let such important economic players do whatever they want, it results in problems for everyone. For the oil sands, this means harsher environmental controls, both in terms of carbon emissions and in local environmental issues, such as contamination of the water supply and destruction of wildlife.

    MacLean's suggestion for technology investment as a solution in itself is ridiculous – the cheapest way for an oil producer to operate is to spew out as much pollution as possible. The incentives need to include an obligation to implement emissions-reducing technologies, even if it would be cheaper for oil companies to avoid it. Alternatively, and this would be my preference, emissions for the broader economy should be deincentivized – I don't care if the oil sands emit as much as they do now if the economic gain from such activities warrants it, but emissions reductions in this country have to come from somewhere.

    More importantly, the over-focus on the oil sands puts Alberta, and to a lesser extent Canada as a whole, overly tied to that one resource. To maintain stability, we need a broader economy, Alberta in particular. Thanks in no small part to the rise of the Universities of Alberta and Calgary, Alberta's non-resource sector is becoming quite strong and if this can be properly encouraged, Alberta will cease to be the boom-bust economy it used to be and, to an extent, still is.

  10. Water usage in the oil sands is grossly exagerated. They don't use anything close to the amount of water the critics say they do.

  11. The oil sands operators are recycling 90% or more of the water they use to extract oil sands. In Alberta, Farmers use 93% of the total fresh water used…mostly to grow food to export to the US (talk about bulk water exports). They contribute 3% to Alberta's GDP.

    Oil Sands operators use less than 2% of the consumed freshwater, for over 70% of the GDP.

    Farmers – 93% of water — 3% of GDP
    Oil Sands 2% of Water — 70% of GDP

    The math is pretty simple. Price water, and stop the massive subsidization of bulk water exports to the US, via farm products.