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A decade of bitumen battles: How 10 years of fighting over oilsands affects energy, environment debate today

by Jason Fekete (feat. Colin Robertson)

National Post
July 6, 2016

OTTAWA – Standing two storeys tall, the 180-tonne yellow dump truck parked on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., commanded attention all around Capitol Hill.

With tires four metres high, the Caterpillar 777F hauler — similar to the monster machines used in the oilsands — was the main attraction for Alberta’s exhibit at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in July 2006.

The behemoth machine symbolized the province’s growing energy bounty: a secure supplier of crude to the United States, boasting some of the planet’s largest oil reserves.

But in a global game of Show and Tell, the move would also backfire.

During that two-week stretch, the truck unexpectedly became a powerful symbol and prime target for a U.S. environmental movement searching for a focal point for its next campaign.

It would set off 10 years of trouble for the oilsands, triggering a new level of environmental scrutiny over developing the resource that is profoundly felt in Canada to this day.

“It was a pivotal moment,” says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington.

“When you bring a tarsands dump truck to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., it was like bringing the tarsands into our backyard. For the environmental groups in D.C., it was a moment of it sort of being, ‘They’ve brought this fight to us.’ ”

On the other side of the debate, Greg Stringham, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, journeyed to the U.S. capital and saw the giant truck draw crowds.

It soon became clear to him the event caught the attention of U.S. environmental groups as well.

“I honestly believe that it was the trigger point for people to recognize what was going on up here — and see it as an opportunity to pit opposition against us,” says Stringham, who retired from the industry’s main lobby group this year.

“Before that, it was essentially invisible, out of country, and that’s really where the major opposition started.”

The battle waged against the oilsands since then put Alberta and Canada on a path leading to many of the issues vexing the country today over balancing energy development and environmental protection.

Lingering concerns over energy infrastructure have stalled or torpedoed major pipeline projects at home and in the U.S., while Canada is trying to shed its international reputation as an environmental laggard.

At the same time, ambitious new environmental policies and climate targets are being promised in Alberta and federally to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the oilsands, the country’s fastest growing source of GHGs.

The tarry sands in northern Alberta have also influenced the country’s foreign policy, including relations with the U.S., China and European Union.

And it began with the truck staring out at Casey-Lefkowitz and Stringham at Washington’s National Mall.

“It was a moment where it made it very clear to us (that) this was something we needed to fight back against,” she says.

Adds Stringham: “It was just something they saw as too good to pass up. And that’s where it started.”

In Alberta, the giant truck, much like the oilsands over the past decade, became both a blessing and a curse for politicians.

From 2006 until the end of 2014, the industry invested a staggering $365 billion developing the oilsands.

With money coursing through northern Alberta, oilsands production more than tripled between 2000 and 2014, creating thousands of jobs and paying billions in taxes and royalties to governments. 

Production now stands at almost 2.4 million barrels per day and is projected to rise by another 1.3 million barrels by 2030.

Former Alberta energy minister Murray Smith, who came up with the idea of taking the truck to Washington, is adamant the venture paid dividends.

“Alberta runs on oil and on money and you could not get … oilsands production up until you got money attracted into it for investment purposes,” says Smith, Alberta’s trade envoy in Washington from 2005 until 2007.

“I wanted the money here — and it came.”

However, former diplomat Colin Robertson, in charge of advocacy at the Canadian Embassy in Washington at the time, says the extra attention had negative consequences.

“The environmental community was looking around for a target in terms of Big Oil, and we put ourselves into the headlights, by design in a sense,” he says.

Once environmental activists had the oilsands in their sights, they didn’t let up, highlighting its emissions, destruction of the boreal forest, and the potential impact on fresh water and nearby First Nation communities.

With opponents using such images as open-pit mines near Fort McMurray and dead ducks on a tailings pond, the resource became a powerful symbol of the ecological challenges that go with developing the bitumen bounty.

Seemingly overnight, the oilsands were attracting unflattering headlines and opponents, from former U.S. vice-president Al Gore to such Hollywood heavyweights as director James Cameron.

The European Union and the Obama administration, along with such groups as Greenpeace, began singling out the unconventional oil resource as a “dirty” form of crude, whether the title was accurate or not.

Former Alberta international relations minister Gary Mar says the truck demonstrated the significance of the resource and its ability to become a secure supplier to the United States.

Between 2009 and 2015, cross-border oil trade between Canada and the United States soared by 80 per cent to almost 3.6 million barrels per day, according to consultancy IHS Energy.

It was inevitable groups opposed to fossil fuels and “professional cause-pleaders that used this as a way of raising money” would target Canada, says Mar.

“They would not be able to go to Riyadh and protest oil in Saudi Arabia. They would not be able to go to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and protest oil,” adds Mar, who replaced Smith as Alberta’s trade envoy in Washington.

“It was a logical target for them to come after us.”

While the spotlight shone on the oilsands, the Alberta government, Canada’s federal government and industry appeared flat-footed over the growing criticism.

In Wild Rose country, premier Ed Stelmach’s new energy minister, Mel Knight, recalls how political and environmental headaches quickly compounded, leaving the province playing defence.

Knight believes environmental groups, First Nations communities and younger Canadians felt disenfranchised, that they weren’t getting enough attention for their concerns over the resource’s development.

They turned up the heat, but the province and industry were slow to respond, he says.

“We shot ourselves. Nobody needed to do it. We did it — and we did it partially by this business of not paying attention to these groups of people who wanted attention,” Knight says.

“They would come up with a story and we would come up with a rebuttal. But the rebuttal is always on Page 6 and the story is on the front page.”

South of the border, Casey-Lefkowitz with the NRDC was there at the beginning, handing out an oilsands “fact sheet” at the National Mall after the dump truck arrived in 2006.

She was familiar with Alberta and the oilsands, having visited the province and met with other environmental partners.

The NRDC was trying to decide whether fighting oilsands expansion was a campaign worth taking on, when suddenly the answer became abundantly clear.

“Alberta hoped that truck would symbolize an opportunity for the U.S. But for us, it symbolized something that would be very destructive for the U.S.,” says Casey-Lefkowitz.

“That was really a starting point of getting the engagement of other U.S. environmental groups.”

Soon, such other environmental organizations as Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation would join the fight.

In Alberta, environmental groups welcomed the help.

Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute, who headed up the environmental think-tank’s Energy Watch program, says concerns about the cumulative impact of oilsands expansion were ignored by industry and governments more focused on boosting production.

“There was a bit of greediness happening, sort of a sense of ‘let’s get as much production happening as quickly as we can and then we’ll circle back and deal with all of these issues,’ ” he says.

Events such as the Smithsonian display demonstrated that Alberta and Canada were “tone-deaf to the issue,” Severson-Baker says.

Canada-U.S. relations specialist Chris Sands says the truck rolled into Washington at a “pivot point” in how U.S. decision makers and the public viewed the oilsands.

The post-9/11 push for energy security started to give way to a larger focus on the climate.

The attention shifted towards combating climate change, helping catapult Barack Obama to the White House in the 2008 presidential election.

“In a way, it reflects the old thinking of Alberta, which is, ‘If the Americans just knew what we had, they would see us as the answer to their prayers,’” says Sands, an international relations expert at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

“Suddenly they realized that wasn’t what we were hoping for.”

In Ottawa, Stephen Harper’s new Conservative government also had several false starts on the climate-change file.


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