Darcy Henton, with files from Mike De Souza, Canwest News Service
Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald
Saturday, February 16, 2008
Just after Tory Leader Ed Stelmach derided a new report that calls Alberta’s oilsands “the most destructive development on earth,” he was confronted by a Mikisew Cree who’s worried the megaprojects are poisoning his people.
Stelmach dismissed the report by the Environmental Defence Organization as being written by “silk-suited” Toronto and Park Avenue New York environmentalists, who had never been to Fort McMurray.
But he appeared to have more time on his campaign visit to Fort McMurray for concerns expressed by Mikisew member George Poitras.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do to make sure that people have peace of mind,” Stelmach told Poitras at a coffee shop where the Conservative leader had been campaigning.
Poitras said the Cree who reside in Fort Chipewyan, north of the oilsands, want the provincial and federal governments to do more to investigate concerns that the oilsands are the cause of rare cancers that are killing his people.
“I am curious why your government continues to dismiss the claims made by Fort Chipewyan?” he asked Stelmach.
“We’re not dismissing any claims,” the Tory leader replied. “Health is very important to my government.”
The exchange came the same day the new report — called Canada’s Toxic Tarsands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth — accused the federal government of being “missing in action” by failing to enforce federal laws to clean up oil extraction from the oilsands in Alberta.
It estimates that federal Environment Minister John Baird’s new proposal to regulate emissions from industrial facilities would allow greenhouse gases to double within a dozen years because of soft targets that only require industry to reduce emissions per unit of production, instead of hard caps.
Matt Price of Environmental Defence said that growing emissions from the oilsands would wipe out gains from industries in other provinces, such as B.C. or Ontario.
“Politically speaking, the reason we have weak federal standards on climate change is to let the tarsands grow,” he said in Ottawa. “There’s a tailor-made loophole for the tarsands.”
The report notes that federal targets on air pollution would allow volatile organic compound emissions to grow by 60 per cent over the next seven years.
An industry spokesperson acknowledged that petroleum producers need to adopt greener practices, but suggested they share some common ground with environmental groups.
“While I don’t see there’s a lot new that’s raised in here, it certainly does highlight the shared concern that the public has,” said Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
“The industry knows very clearly that on the environmental front, the only way that we’re going to be able to operate on a sustainable basis is to be able to do this in an environmentally acceptable manner.”
On the campaign trail, Stelmach outlined several studies his government is doing into the cumulative impacts of oilsands projects and upgraders. He also agreed to consider a request for a baseline health study for the people of the remote community, north of Fort McMurray.
Poitras said later he wasn’t convinced the premier would act on his request and wasn’t surprised to hear that Stelmach had earlier dismissed the Environmental Defence report.
“We have people dying from rare cancers and other chronic diseases but the government is no where on the radar screen in addressing these issues — neither the federal nor provincial government,” he said.
Stelmach stressed his government is monitoring the impacts of the multibillion-dollar oilsands projects. He warned, however, that if the projects were shut down, it would be economic suicide.
A Liberal plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 Kyoto accord levels would kill jobs across Canada, Stelmach added.
“The community of Fort McMurray is at ground zero,” he warned. “This is where the first job losses will take effect.”
In Edmonton, Liberal Leader Kevin Taft said the report paints an extremely negative point of view of Alberta’s oilsands.
“It has be taken as a very one-sided report,” he said.
But, he believes this report’s dire warnings underscore the increasing national and international focus on the massive and lucrative oilsands. Instead, Taft advocates a slower, phased-in approach to oilfield development in northern Alberta.
“The pressure to clean up the oilsands is getting to be relentless,” he added. “If we bury our heads in the oilsands, we will be run over.”
In Fort McMurray, residents expressed concern about the impact of the developments on health and the environment, but most were confident the Conservative government and the oilsands companies will address health issues and mitigate any environmental damage.
“It’s a mining operation. How can they get it out of the ground without damaging the earth?” said Elsie Mjelve, 73.
Gerarda Germaine, a mother of three toddlers, said she is concerned about the incidents of asthma among children in the community and worries if its related to the oilsands.
“We can certainly smell it in the air,” she said.
MLA Guy Boutilier said he wouldn’t dismiss concerns of environmentalists or aboriginal people and he “welcomes the wisdom of the elders,” but doesn’t believe there’s cause for alarm.
He maintained the air in Fort McMurray is 10 times cleaner than the air in Toronto and most other Canadian cities.
“My nine-month-old son lives in the oilsands right here in Fort McMurray and if you don’t think for a moment I want him the breathe clean air, you’re mistaken.”