Editor of The Millstone

I thank Mr. Lee for his comments, and welcome this opportunity to answer his objections by elaborating on the points I made in my article.

First, Mr. Lee questions my quote regarding the carbon emissions produced by extracting oil from the Alberta tarsands.

The information in my article was taken from the website www.pembina.org/oil-sands/os101/climate‎, which states that “average greenhouse gas emissions for oilsands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States.”  This number (mentioned in my column on the tarsands) refers to the difference in greenhouse gas emissions during the extraction and upgrading processes only, which is much greater for the tarsands than for conventional oil.  I believe the number Mr. Lee quotes refers to the total carbon emissions produced (from the point of extraction up to and including the emissions emitted by vehicles burning the end product; i.e., the gasoline), which considerably dilutes the initial difference and obscures the point being made.

Second, regarding the extent of damage to the boreal forest, in my column I actually stated that “over 66% (of 140,000 square kilometres) has been leased to companies for extraction.”  This would suggest that over 92,000 square kilometres is considered to contain oil deposits.  That’s a lot of square kilometres, and a lot of potential environmental damage.

Third, Mr. Lee also states that the amount of damage done to the boreal forest is minimal, and “ignores the amount of restoration that has been done and will be done.”

Quoting the Pembina Institute (see reference above): “Only 0.15% of the area disturbed by oilsands mining is certified as reclaimed by the provincial government.  Oilsands reclamation will not return the boreal forest to its natural state.”

Fourth, with respect to the tailings ponds resulting from mining the Alberta tarsands, it would be nice to believe that they have been, or can be cleaned, but as already pointed out, it appears that little or no habitat restoration has been done to date.  Repeating my quote from The Guardian Weekly:

None of the companies operating in Canada’s tar sands have met a commitment to clean up the vast and expanding sprawl of toxic wasteponds, an official report has found. The report, from Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, further challenges the Canadian government’s claims to responsible mining of the tar sands….The report focuses on the provincial government’s promise to clean up and eventually eliminate a vast network of open ponds storing mining waste from the tar sands along the Athabasca river. None of the seven companies operating in the tar sands met the original performance standard, set in 2009, during the last two years, the ECRB said in its report. Only one of the companies met a revised and weakened standard. The finding was quietly published last week, without a press release…. However, the board did not propose any penalties against the companies, suggesting instead that the clean-up targets may have been overly optimistic. (June 20, 2013)

Given the apparent lack of effort and money devoted to restoration thus far, the absence of penalties for the failure by the oil companies in question to restore habitat, and the loosening of environmental restrictions by the Harper government, it does not seem likely that restoration will be implemented now or in the future.

Fifth, as for whether the health anecdotes are purely anecdotal or statistically significant, I know I would be extremely concerned if I was living near an industry that released mercury, heavy metals, arsenic, and huge amounts of volatile organic compounds and sulphur dioxide into the environment.  As for Ontario’s coal-fired power plants, they are another environmental issue that needs to be dealt with, but they have no relevance in this debate.

In closing, it is my conviction that people have been conned by big business into believing that they have endless needs and entitlements that need to be gratified, regardless of the cost.  We don’t assign a dollar value to the natural environment, which provides us with all the goods we REALLY need to survive:  clean air and water, fertile soil, trees and other vegetation, wetlands, healthy oceans, and natural habitat for wildlife (because, regardless of the manufactured environment many of us live in, we depend on a well-functioning ecosystem for our survival), and we don’t assign a cost when these assets are degraded or destroyed.  We also don’t assign a cost to the rebuilding and restoration triggered by extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly common as a result of climate change.

We don’t have to (actually, we can’t) return to the days of the horse and buggy.  But as one of the most affluent societies on this planet, we can do much, much more to reduce our overconsumption and our dependence on oil.  As for the need for jobs and a thriving economy, do we want to follow in China’s footsteps, where air, water and soil pollution have resulted in considerable health problems and fatalities?  Surely we can find a way to meet our needs and apply our talents in an environmentally sustainable way?