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As the price of oil rises, mining the tarsands is becoming more popular than drilling for oil.
John McDonald/the Gauntlet

Oil's well that ends well...

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The Albertan economy, like your car, is run on oil. Since the beginning of Alberta's long love affair with the substance, from the great oil strike with Leduc No. 1 oil well to the current mining operations in Fort McMurray, the engine of the Alberta economy has been lubricated with the black sticky stuff. Many young men and women move up north to find employment in the patch, where companies like Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada Ltd. are some of the largest employers in the region.

One of the issues at stake in this election--a sentiment echoed by all candidates--is the environment. While each candidate states there need to be steps taken to help with the environment, each party has a significantly different idea of just what is necessary in regard to the oilsands.

"We've already taken some steps that are actually working," said Calgary-Varsity Progressive Conservative candidate Jennifer Diakiw. "In our climate change strategy, all large industrial emitters are supposed to reduce their emission intensity by 12 per cent. The reduction of emissions is one of the important pieces that will impact the oilsands."

While the steps made by the Conservatives have been baby steps in the right direction, Calgary-Varsity NDP candidate Tim Stock-Bateman believes impacts extend beyond the air quality that the current government is focusing on.

"What's on the minds of Albertans are these grave concerns about the clear environmental impact we know we're having in the oilsands, as well as the environmental impact we don't know is happening," explained Stock-Bateman. "We really don't know [about] the long-term impacts that will happen in the future."

Alberta Liberal MLA Harry Chase, the incumbent in the Calgary-Varsity race and the opposition critic for infrastructure in the legislature, strongly disagreed with Diakiw's sentiment. His party, the opposition in the house, have long criticized the government for their environmental shortfalls.

"The reality of [the PC platform] is short-term gain and long-term pain," said Chase. "Varying people of differing viewpoints have pointed this out--Preston Manning has made the point, Peter Lougheed has made the point several times. These are people who you wouldn't consider left-leaning at all. The pace cannot be maintained."

Calgary-Varsity Green Party candidate Sean Maw also criticized the government over their oilsands policy, specifically pointing out the laissez-faire attitude towards getting the oil out of the ground.

"The Conservatives seem to act like if they don't use up the oil in a few years, it's not going to be there," explained Maw. "It's insane, insane development. It's in everyone's best interest that until there's a thoughtful and sustainable plan in place, there would be no new development. We're not suggesting shutting down the oilsands, but we don't believe there should be any more development without a comprehensive [environmental] plan in place."

Chase reinforced the concept of just how development-hungry the Albertan government is by referencing a statement made by his predecessor, former PC MLA Murray Smith.

"Alberta is for sale or rent," said Chase. "My predecessor, Murray Smith, went down to Texas and said 'come on up, we're giving it away' and the attitude still predominates [in the legislature]."

The media has only recently discussed the impact of the oilsands on the water supply and quality in regard to Athabasca River Basin, which quenches the thirst of the oilsands machine. With pieces in Alberta views magazine and a report on Fort Chipewyan on CBC's The National, the issue of water supply has slowly entered into the forefront of the debate on the oilsands.

"We're dealing with a type of oil extraction that uses a tremendous amount of water," explained Stock-Bateman. "We use this water to pull oil out of the earth [and it] costs Albertans more and more. We're doing damage to, in and around the area where the water is coming from. We don't know what the long-term impacts are on the ecosystem."

The process of reclaiming oil involves filling the holes created in the mining process with top soil and then bringing in domestic vegetation and animals. Chase was critical of the implementation, saying that while admirable, these companies have yet to make enough of an effort.

"The only example of reclamation is a little patch of reclaimed land with ornamental buffalo roaming around on it," said Chase. "That says 'yes we can reclaim,' but there's no wide-scale effort to reclaim the mined-out land. To borrow a golf term, we need to replace our divot. All we have right now is holes."

With all these problems, Maw wonders why the other parties aren't taking more proactive steps in dealing with the environmental impact of the oilsands.

"Why do we have to be reactive?" asked Maw. "That's what makes the Greens different; we want to be proactive when it comes to environmental policy."

Whereas the other policies talk about slowing development, Diakiw argued the PC party is unique in its belief that slowing down development would be disastrous for the economy and, instead, working on balancing the gro- wth with environmental impacts.

"The oilsands are one of the engines of our economy," said Diakiw. "The government's focus is on balanced growth, we want to manage the environmental impact and cap the emissions, but we don't want to slow the growth."

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