TORONTO—What to do about the tar sands? On the one hand, we’ve been told that if we don’t dig up the tar sands as fast as possible our economy will sputter, governments will be forever in deficit, and social services that Canadians hold dear will be sacrificed. On the other hand, getting that oil out of the ground and to market will come at a very high cost to our land, air, water and climate.
Which to choose: Canada’s economy, or our environment?
Here’s the thing, though: Canadians have been asked to make this choice but they have been misled as to what’s at stake. Specifically, they have been led to believe the economic impacts are greater than they actually are.
According to Statistics Canada, the tar sands and other unconventional sources of oil generate about two per cent of Canada’s GDP. However, polling done for us by Environics found that most Canadians, 57 per cent, to be precise, believe their contribution is much greater than that. In fact, 41 per cent of Canadians believe the tar sands contribute between six and 24 times more to Canada’s GDP than they actually do.
You can’t blame folks for the confusion. The wealthy companies behind the tar sands are in the midst of what is likely the largest advertising campaign in Canadian history. Whether you’re sitting in a movie theatre, watching Hockey Night in Canada, or strolling through an airport, pretty much anywhere in this country, it’s practically impossible to avoid seeing images of smiling oilsands workers or pristine nature scenes, advertising the virtues of Canada’s oil industry.
Add to this the fact that the federal government routinely holds up the tar sands as key to Canada’s economic health and voices strong support for pipeline proposals to carry heavy Alberta crude West, South and East, and it’s easy to see why people believe the tar sands are so important to Canada’s economy.
And yet, despite this misconception, Canadians still overwhelmingly support reducing our reliance on oil, for the sake of our economy and our environment. According to the polling, two thirds of Canadians believe we need to develop an economic strategy that is less dependent on the tar sands. Two thirds of Albertans felt this way too. And over three quarters of Canadians also feel that, given climate change, Canada needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and shift to cleaner energy.
That’s a pretty strong endorsement for clean energy. And if Canadians really knew how little the tar sands contributed to our economy, if they knew that the tar sands are not some golden goose, you can bet that even more of them would support a turn toward cleaner energy.
All of this is good news because the choice between the economy and the environment is entirely a false choice. It’s not a choice that can be made. We need a strong economy, and we need a clean environment.
But if the oil industry gets its way and triples tar sands production, emissions from the tar sands will climb by 250 per cent by 2030 and overshadow any efforts made elsewhere in Canada to reduce our emissions.
At a mere two per cent of GDP, the tar sands don’t contribute nearly enough to justify turning our backs on climate change or damaging the land, air and water and trampling First Nations rights. The continued expansion of tar sands cannot justify the 11 million litres of toxic wastewater that seeps out of the tailing pits into the boreal forest and Athabasca River every day. Such a small contribution to Canada’s economy cannot excuse the damage to countless communities whose environment, drinking water, and livelihoods are being put at risk by tar sands production and irresponsible pipeline proposals.
Canadians do have a choice to make, but it’s not between the environment and the economy. Our choice is between locking in to a dirty economy versus getting started on building a clean economy sooner rather than later. And, based on the results of the polling, Canadians have a clear preference. Even though folks overestimate the contribution of the tar sands, they overwhelmingly support moving away from them and toward a cleaner future.
Keith Brooks is director of the clean economy program at Environmental Defence in Toronto.

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