Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


How About a Plan for Prosperity?

Getting Oil Sands Development Right

Published in Edmonton Journal (Mar 30, 2007)*

By Dan Woynillowicz, Director, Strategy and External Relations, Pembina Institute

Note: A modified version of this Op-Ed appeared in the Calgary Herald on April 23, 2007.

With "the price of prosperity" emerging as the dominant theme of Premier Stelmach's first provincial budget, one is left to ponder this apparent contradiction. Are Albertans truly benefiting if this supposed prosperity comes with such a hefty price tag? Calgarians are paying the price for a booming economy, with consumer prices rising three times faster in Calgary than any other major Canadian city. And at a time when there is widespread agreement that we need to tackle global warming, the oil sands stand out as the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution in Canada. This is the fundamental contradiction of Alberta's boom: while the economy grows and industry profits, measures of genuine progress — like access to doctors, commute times and the integrity of our environment — are deteriorating.

While the government spending outlined in the budget will take the first steps towards catching up to the feverish pace of growth — driven predominantly by runaway oil sands development — it is not supported by a plan to manage future growth to prevent the same problems from recurring. It provides band-aids rather than a cure. As a result, Albertans will continue "paying" for prosperity rather than capitalizing on it. Surely we can do better than this.

The "Alberta Oil Sands Consultations" that will be passing through Calgary next week are therefore timely. If Premier Stelmach is to deliver on his priority to "manage growth pressures," he need only listen to Alberta's citizens. Albertans have articulated a well-rounded and far-reaching vision for the oil sands that will require re-defining how and why development occurs.  Getting oil sands development right will require genuine leadership.

Throughout the province, the consultation tour has heard that in order to get it right the government needs to slow the pace of oil sands development, and even put a moratorium on approving new projects and leasing more land to oil sands companies. Finance Minister Lyle Oberg made it clear that the government can't maintain the present pace of operating funding increases reflected in the budget, so it's only logical that the current pace of oil sands development cannot continue.

Now is the time for the government to prove it's not just a one-trick pony - one that believes its job is to help industry develop as fast as possible while leaving quality of life, infrastructure, social concerns and the environment to look after themselves.

Alberta is in an enviable position to take a time-out to get its future development right. Approved projects will already lead to a doubling of current production, so new jobs will continue being created and new revenues will continue being generated during a temporary moratorium on new approvals. It's time to stop paying for prosperity and to start planning for it. If Alberta is to have a healthy environment, strong communities and a robust economy long into the future, then a plan for the oil sands is long overdue. This plan should be based on five key tasks:

  1. Look after the environment, by setting precautionary limits on impacts to air, fresh water, forests and wildlife, and requiring absolute reductions in greenhouse gas pollution.
  2. Focus on improving qualify of life and manage the pace of oil sands development so that social services and infrastructure keep pace and value-added development is maximized.
  3. Think like an owner and reform the royalty regime to ensure Albertans get the most value possible from this non-renewable resource that they own.
  4. Reform how development decisions are made so that they truly reflect the public interest and only allow oil sands projects to proceed if they are consistent with Albertans' expectations of responsible development.
  5. Plan for the future and take advantage of Alberta's economic prosperity to build a more diversified, green and competitive economy based on low-impact renewable energies and responsible energy use.

It's time for the government to turn a deaf ear to the oil industry's song of gloom and discourse that instills fear of change, and to elevate its actions to match Albertans' expectations. Alberta has no public debt, a unique culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, and engaged citizens: we can find a way to develop the oil sands responsibly that will bring sustained benefits that will improve our quality of life.

It's time to pause and plan for Alberta's future environmental, social and economic prosperity.

Dan Woynillowicz is a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute and author of Oil Sands Fever.  The Alberta Government's consultations on oil sands will be in Calgary on April 23 and 24, 2007.  Almost a dozen reports on oil sands topics and Pembina's Blueprint For Responsible Oil Sands Development can be found at www.oilsandswatch.org.