Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has her work cut out for her, dealing with her province’s open-licence approach to how oil companies have operated historically.
The recent Nexen bitumen pipeline spill is currently shining the spotlight on the province’s problematic status quo: environmental impacts generally, bitumen from oilsands and the damaged caused, the future of the fossil fuel economy (and climate change), the integrity and reliability of pipelines (and rail road tankers in their place) and the constitiutional rights of Alberta’s FirstNation citizens, all in one untidy bundle. As much at issue is how Notley will handle all this.
She has a tightrope to walk in Alberta, we all get that. Petroleum export is critical to the provincial economy and although she may plan to change that, Albertans want continued prosperity, and they want it now.
What the Notley NDP will do about the recent Nexen spill is one of their first big tests. They have already served notice they will examine the role and effectiveness of the energy regulator (AER) while at the same time indicating tacit support for pipelines and the oilsands industry, but what is behind that thinking?
They are not leftist radicals – that is obvious – but do they have a new, better way of managing all those matters – pipelines, oilsands bitumen, the fossil fuel economy, First Nations’ rights and environmental impact? All of Canada is waiting to find out, hoping somehow they will come up with inspired solutions.
Until now, the approach to development in Alberta has been an environmental war zone. A spill here, a cutline there, it all adds up when done thousands of times because there are no regulations and no accountability. The word “cumulative” is barely a whisper in the review process.
Northern Journal staff researching wildfires in the Zama and Rainbow Lakes area of northeastern Alberta last year, a region known for its rich oil reserves, observed on Google Earth that the forest had been shredded by cutlines for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. It is unbelievable the amount of damage that was allowed there in the search for more oil. Will that kind of wanton abuse change now, under the new Notley regime?
Two Alberta cabinet ministers toured the Nexen pipeline spill site late last week, along with a local First Nation representative. The press release that followed praised the First Nations and those working to contain the spill, but beyond platitudes there was little of substance. That just won’t cut it.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation pointed out that the muskeg where the Nexen spill took place is permanently damaged. It cannot be “remediated” or repaired by any means. Not ever. It is also an integral link in the ecosystem chain; the water in it, now contaminated, is a source for recharging groundwater in the aquifer. As western North America suffers from severe drought, the value of that pure, underground water is only just being realized. A contaminated wetland, peat bog or muskeg may be able to heal itself over hundreds of years, but the idea that an environment that has been damaged can somehow be returned to its natural state through the efforts of industry is ridiculous.
The fact the damage took place on the pipeline right-of-way seems to somehow make the spill acceptable to some. The thinking behind the development of the oilsands is similar on a much grander scale. The end justifies the means when it comes to development, especially when there is corporate power behind it. The end is to generate wealth for shareholders, at any cost.
The hinterland in the northern part of the province has been viewed by Alberta government offices in Edmonton and the auspicious office towers in Calgary as scrub bush, its only inhabitants a few tiny, widely-dispersed Aboriginal communities; of little value and expendable. It is not the vibrant and valued boreal forest, traditional land of First Nations and the lungs of the planet seen by those who admire and respect it. Which side does the Notley government land on?
They have an opportunity to instill respect for the land as an integral part of any development. That is what most Canadians want. It is interesting that the prospect of a federal government led by Tom Mulcair as Prime Minister may well rest with the approach taken by the Alberta NDP in such matters as the Nexen spill – the solutions they find for making the most of Alberta’s petroleum industry, at the same time demonstrating they can manage it intelligently – will reflect strongly on the choice voters make next October.