Such a fine line: economy versus environment

Four strong winds that blow from Alberta

Four strong winds that blow from Alberta

This music industry icon, this erstwhile miner for a heart of gold, steps off the bandwagon just long enough to cluck his tongue and sample the air in beautiful, downtown Fort McMurray.

It looks like a nuclear test site and smells like one, too, says Neil Young: “The Indians up there and the native peoples are dying. The fuel (is) all over – the fumes everywhere – you can smell it when you get to town. The closest place to Fort McMurray that is doing the tar sands work is 25 or 30 miles out of town and you can taste it when you get to Fort McMurray. People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this. All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”

What’s more, he told an American crowd the other day, “Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima. . .a wasteland. . .The oil that we’re using here. . .they call ethical oil because it’s not from Saudi Arabia or some country that may be at war with us.”

Actually, there’s no need for atomic-era hyperbole. Good, old Fort Mac (population: 61,000) looks like Fargo, North Dakota, which is, in and of itself, bad enough. But I take Mr. Young’s point: The tar sands are despicable. Boo.

Among the celebrated elite, it’s a familiar refrain, gaining ever greater traction as U.S. President Barack Obama leisurely considers his next move in the Keystone XL pipeline kerfuffle. Indeed, the list of prominent “deathline” haters grows longer with each day that passes on the protest lines: There’s the Dali Lama and his pal, Al Gore; there’s Bishop Desmond Tutu and Sundance Kid Robert Redford; there’s actors Mark Ruffalo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kyra Sedgwick, and David Strathaim. All are wedded to the simple, if absolute, certainty that Alberta’s oil industry is killing the planet.

They are probably right. Still, no one in a position of authority ever looks at the long game of energy policy – not when the short game is so economically lucrative and politically profitable.

Consider the oft-repeated rejoinder of tar sands apologists to the environmental lobby’s claim that Alberta bitumen is dirtiest source of oil in the world: No, it’s not. Or, as Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told The New York Times’s Joe Nocera recently, “That statement that the Keystone pipeline would mean ‘game over’ for the environment is absurd.”

Mr. Nocera – a confessed proponent of the project – grabbed the baton from Mr. Oliver and, in his column, sprinted to the finish line:

“Oil mined from the sands is simply not as environmentally disastrous as opponents like to claim. Extraction technology has improved to the point where there is almost no difference, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, between sands oil and old-fashioned oil drilling. The government has insisted that the companies extracting the oil return the land to its original state when the mining is completed. Indeed, for all the hysteria over the environmental consequences of the oil sands, there is oil in California that is actually dirtier than the oil from the sands.”

All of which misses the bigger point – the one that celebrity eco-warriors, themselves, invariably fail to make: If you’re pointing a shotgun to your head, does it really matter what calibre of shell you’re using?

The world is hooked on oil. It’s going to stay that way until it runs out (not likely) or its economies collapse (increasingly likely). If Keystone fails to win presidential assent this time around – thanks, perhaps, to the pickets of the preeminent – it, or something like it, will roll out the next time around, or the time after that. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Just as there’s no point in pretending that anyone is giving serious consideration to the long-term economic benefits of the Energy East pipeline proposal for New Brunswick – though we might do ourselves a favour by curbing our crowing tongues for a change and spend a few minutes actually examining the post-construction-phase ramifications of, and the durable commercial opportunities generated by, the project.

After all, out here in New Brunswick, where we don’t lace our boots without a government shoestring, we’re not looking for a heart of gold.

Just the gold.

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