Newly released federal documents have revealed some potentially inconvenient truths about the environmental impact of Alberta’s oilsands industry, along with the risks and economic costs of the Harper government’s climate change strategy.
The documents take aim at a government assessment of the oilsands sector prepared by the Natural Resources Department.
Officials from Environment Canada who reviewed the original package, warned that it reflected the views of oil companies instead of the facts.
“The package should deliver neutral, balanced and factual information,” said the analysis. “Currently, much of the language is too pro-industry, and would make the government to be perceived as bias and thus not credible or serving the public good.”
The documents warn that some climate change and water quality policies are unproven and could drive up production costs in the oilsands by as much as $20 per barrel of oil, while creating new pollution that affects air quality. The price of oil is now trading on the markets at about $80 U.S. a barrel.
The analysis notes that the oilsands industry will not be able to implement wide-scale changes needed to address rising pollution, such as the introduction of technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions and bury them underground, without clear regulations and a price signal set by the government.
“There are also significant risks associated with integrating (carbon capture and storage) on a large commercial-scale when it has yet to be successfully demonstrated in the oilsands,” said the package, which also warned the government to address negative impacts of introducing nuclear power into the oilsands production process.
Regarding total greenhouse gas emissions, the documents explain that while the industry has reduced emissions per barrel over the past two decades, overall greenhouse gas emissions have tripled since 1990 and will likely continue to rise.
“I think this document sort of shows some hidden truths about what the government knows about oilsands and what they’re not saying out loud,” said Matt Price, policy director at Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based conservation group which obtained the documents through an Access to Information request. “It obviously says some things in this document that I don’t think the government actually wants the public to hear.”
The original Natural Resources Canada analysis also highlights the economic spinoffs generated throughout the country, estimating that it is projected to increase economic growth by $885 billion between 2000 and 2020, including growth of $634 billion in Alberta, $102 billion in Ontario, $8 billion in Quebec and $45 billion in the rest of the country.
But the Environment Canada comments, which were delivered in an e-mail last February by scientist Mark Tushingham following extensive and wide consultations within the department, questioned why the original document included an overview of a controversial industry-funded report from 2001 that downplayed the carbon footprint of oilsands activity.
“The rapid development of the oilsands has led to a number of environmental challenges affecting the land, water and air,” said the analysis.
Tushingham was also at the centre of controversy in 2006 when the office of former environment minister Rona Ambrose ordered him to cancel a presentation about a new book he wrote on climate change, Hotter Than Hell.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice declined to give an interview about the documents, but Environment Canada spokeswoman Paula Franchellini said the analysis did not necessarily reflect the views of the government.
Jacinthe Perras, a spokeswoman from Natural Resources Canada, acknowledged that a section, prepared by Paul Khanna, a policy adviser on security of supply and the oilsands, highlighted controversial industry-funded research from 2001. But she explained it was, at the time, one of the few studies available evaluating life-cycle impacts of production. Further studies conducted by independent third parties have since been published, she said.