Has Stephane Dion lost his marbles?

CLIFFORD KRAUSS has an excellent article in the New York Times about the development of the oil sands in Alberta. He points out that, because the oil sands region is so remote, the environmental damage caused by the development receives little attention from the Canadian news media or public comment from Prime Minister Paul Martin's government. But industry leaders acknowledge that they face an enormous challenge because refining oil sands is several times more energy intensive than conventional oil production. In addition, the process is a major source of heat-trapping gases and far more destructive to the landscape than traditional drilling.
But Canada's Environment Minister, Stephane Dion,said in an interview "There is no environmental minister on earth who can stop the oil from coming out of the sand, because the money is too big,But we have to be very strict on environmental impact." If our Environment Minister has already given up the battle, then what hope is there to prevent the destruction of our environment just to feed the developed world's insatiable appetite for fossil fuels?

The NYT reports:

But environmentalists have a list of warnings, starting with the energy costs of extracting the oil.

"What bugs me about oil sands is that it is a resource that is being inefficiently used," said Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental research group based in Calgary. "We're using natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel, to wash sand and make a dirtier fuel. It's like using caviar to make fake crabmeat."

The environmentalists also warn that the growing oil sands industry threatens to tear up a huge stretch of Canada's boreal forest, which is a nursery for hundreds of bird species and where bogs filter water and store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. They say the enormous volume of water the industry needs threatens fish in the Athabasca River, the principal water source. They predict that increases in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide will increase levels of acid rain and destroy lake fish across northern Canada.

They also say that Canada, already behind in its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, will not be able to reach its Kyoto targets if production of oil sands keeps rising at the current rate.

Few Canadians seem to be complaining. This year, every Albertan - even children - is receiving a $400 check in the mail from the provincial government, whose budget surplus has exploded from oil revenue. While Fort McMurray is among the fastest-growing cities in Canada, real estate prices are climbing across the province.

The few protesters tend to be local Indians, although many of the local bands are getting into the oil sands business or supplying projects with services.

"There are no moose, no rabbits, no squirrels anymore," complained Howard Lacorde, 59, a Cree trapper whose trapline has been interrupted by a new oil sands project developed by Canadian Natural Resources. "The land is dead," he added, shaking in anger, as he walked through a construction site that was once his trapline.

Suncor, the EnCana Corporation and Shell Canada Ltd. are talking about setting up a cooperative effort to capture, transport and sell carbon dioxide that otherwise would be released into the air from oil sands production. Total S.A. is considering building a nuclear power plant here to extract the oil sands without having to use increasingly expensive natural gas and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases, which many scientists associate with global warming.

The companies say they are committed to restoring the lands they drill and mine to a state as close to natural as possible, and they note that advanced technologies are decreasing the amounts of gas released per barrel of oil they produce.

So far they have reclaimed 13,000 acres of forest and wetlands, about 15 percent of the land disturbed. But the provincial government has approved oil-sand work on more than 230,000 additional acres over the next 60 years, and applications for new projects are proliferating.

Suncor, the earliest major operator and still one of the biggest, has made a public commitment to environmental responsibility. It has planted 3.1 million trees, taking cuttings from shrubs and native vegetation. The company says it is recycling 90 percent of the water it uses, and it boasts that one species of toad considered at risk is thriving in its reclaimed ponds.

On a new production site using steam injection to liquefy rather than mine the raw material of oil sands and raise it to the surface, Suncor will reuse water from the mining operation instead of using fresh river water.

"With concerted effort and the technology in play, we will be taking on the environmental challenge aggressively," Mr. Lambert of Suncor said. But he conceded that "the economic growth we are experiencing means a rising greenhouse gas production profile."

The only thing likely to slow production is a sustained decline in oil prices, something few energy specialists predict.

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