A vote for environmental degradation

Handing Harper a majority will erode Alberta

Prime Minister Stephen Harper must hate science.

The day after he won his historic majority for the Conservative Party of Canada Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee released an embargoed press release announcing the latest in a long list of reports and science papers indicating that all is not well in the runaway oilsands experiment Harper likes to champion as the future of the Canadian economy. This one a peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Science and Technology found significant levels of highly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the sediments of the Athabasca River Delta downstream of the bitumen mines and factories.

The presence of toxins in the Athabasca River is not new. The Alberta and Harper governments continue to tell anyone who will listen that any and all toxic substances in the river and its tributaries are “natural” the result of oily sand eroding into the river rather than the massive industrial activity along river banks. Government officials also are fond of claiming that PAH concentrations in delta sediments are decreasing “likely due to drier conditions in the last decade resulting in less erosion from these natural sources.”

Hot on the heels of six other studies including research by renowned University of Alberta aquatic ecologist David Schindler that have helped put the lie to such nonsensical claims Timoney and Lee found that PAHs occur in sediments at concentrations that “exceed by a factor of about two to three the threshold observed to induce liver cancers in fishes.” Perhaps most damning of all their research indicates that PAHs in the Athabasca Delta sediments were increasing not decreasing and that they correlated not with natural erosion but with the amount of annual bitumen production the volume of bitumen-soaked sand that had been mined the extent of land that had been disturbed and the amount of industrial particulate emissions.

Sigh. This is bad news for Harper the most pro-oil politician since former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney and Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Not that it will likely stop him from encouraging the wholesale and unsustainable development of Alberta’s oilsands bonanza or from turning a blind eye to the blatant contraventions of various federal laws by both the Alberta government and the bitumen industry. It will just make it more difficult — requiring as it will more taxpayer dollars spent on more political spin more lobbying of foreign governments and more muzzling of federal scientists who know better than Harper the true nature of the environmental and health impacts that are slowly but inexorably floating to the surface of the bitumen pits.

But this is what Canadians have asked for by giving “Big Oil” Harper a majority government. Given the undemocratic peculiarities of Canada’s parliamentary system Harper now has the ability to continue his single-handed neoliberal assault on Canada’s environmental reputation and performance. Gone are any hopes for meaningful climate policy or the responsible development of Alberta’s bitumen deposits. What we can expect to see instead is the continued streamlining of the permitting process for polluting industrial activity less money for environmental monitoring and research a hands-off approach to species-at-risk management more development in national parks and the tight-fisted control of information that the Harper government so loves. Oh and a look-the-other-way attitude toward those job-creators and GDP-boosters who can’t help but pollute vast swaths of boreal forest and the traditional territories of First Nations in their breakneck crusade to turn bitumen into dirty oil.

Canadians seem to have been hoodwinked by the misinformation and false promises that politicians on the political right (especially) distribute like poisoned apples on Halloween. Over the last five years poll after poll indicate that Canadians want more parks that protect wildlife and wilderness more safeguards against toxic pollution a 21st-century economy founded on sustainable development and climate policy that would support the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Instead we handed the anti-environment pro-oil Conservative Party a majority at a pivotal point in Canadian history a misstep for which future generations will harshly judge us.

Foremost among the many counterfeit ideas we have swallowed is the misguided belief that the unfettered free market can simultaneously fatten our wallets and protect human and environmental health largely because technology will solve the problems wrought by the inadequately regulated industrial activity upon which our economy is based. It’s pure fantasy but it’s a fantasy like Cinderella in which we want desperately to believe. Unlike Cinderella however these little black lies threaten the very essence — empathy responsibility community — that once defined the Canada I grew up in.

This does not bode well for Alberta’s upcoming provincial election not if you care about the environment. All but one riding — Edmonton-Strathcona what the National Post’s Kevin Libin dubbed “the most inscrutable” riding in Alberta — went to Harper many by more than 70 per cent of the popular vote. We could hardly do worse than where we’re at as the work of people like Timoney and Schindler keep reminding us but you never know. The last 40 years have seen Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives transformed into Ralph Klein’s Libertarian Conservatives and Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Alliance are waiting in the wings to turn our basest instincts into a march further to the political right.

Still hope springs eternal. After all a handful of Canadians in a little corner of Vancouver Island had the good sense to give Green Party leader Elizabeth May an opportunity to shine a green light on Canada’s forebodingly blue Parliament Hill. Surprisingly there’s another island of environmental sanity in Edmonton where a community with enough of what Libin characterizes as “professors college kids and artists” gave NDP’s Linda Duncan the chance to infuse Alberta’s Blue Team with a tinge of orange.

Keep this in mind the next time you vote: If we’re ever going to build the “clean and sustainable” economy that the Conservatives continuously promise but never deliver we’re going to need a whole lot less blue and a whole lot more orange and green.

Jeff Gailus’ T he Grizzly Manifesto is in the running for the 2010 Alberta Readers Choice Award. His next book Little Black Lies will be published by Rocky Mountain Books this fall .