Environment vs. Economy: The Perpetual Alberta Conundrum

The Gateway Pipelines public hearings have landed in Edmonton and the proceedings will probably get less press than the hearings with Aboriginal communities in British Columbia.
Most communities along the proposed pipeline routes (Gateway and Keystone) have the opportunity to say ‘no’ to the oil industry coming into their backyard. They have the benefit of seeing what the industry has done to Northern Alberta and can make the informed decision to choose environment over economy. It gives the communities power to choose environment over economy, an opportunity Albertans never got.
Alberta did not get that opportunity because the Provincial Government decided to invest in the tar sands as a source of future economic prosperity nearly a century ago. In 1919 the Provincial Government created the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta. Two years later (in 1921) the Research Council hired chemist Karl Clark to work at the University of Alberta on solving the problem of getting oil out of the tar sands. By 1951 the first industrial test plant was in operation in the Athabasca Basin. By the mid-1970s the province had invested millions in developing the tar sands and an enticed oil and gas companies from around the world to construct mining and upgrading facilities. It was at this point the people of Alberta spoke out against the tar sands as reports of excessive air and water pollution surfaced in the local press. However, it was already too late for Albertans to choose environment over economics.
Since the 1970s groups in Alberta have tried to change the course of action in the tar sands. Since the 1970s people in the province have been coming to grips with the repercussions of a decision that was made for them in 1919. Albertans are stuck with the unenviable task of knowing what the tar sands are doing to the environment and being handcuffed by decades of legislation and business practices that privilege the economy over the environment. The inability of interested Albertans to force change in the tar sands is not evidence of disinterest or agreement with the rampant development in the area as much as it is the product of nearly a century of institutional favouring of the economic potential of the tar sands.
Albertans never got the chance to say ‘no’ because the environmental costs of developing the tar sands is too high. Those costs only became apparent after decades of investment and when it was too late to stop the juggernaut. BC and Nebraska can say ‘no’ and make an informed argument against the spill-over from the Athabasca Basin polluting their backyards. Albertans can make an informed argument backed up by decades of studies showing the enormous environmental consequences of extracting and upgrading tar sands, but choice was made before that information was available and now it is too late to say ‘no’.
The pipeline hearings in Edmonton will allow those who oppose the tar sands to express their frustrations and objections. It will give them access to media outlets who may circulate their story. But the hearings are unlikely to change what is already happening in Alberta even if they are able to stall the pipelines and force greater attention to mitigating environmental issues in other areas. A century of feeding research and development, and subsidizing oil companies created a web of connections the favour the economy over the environment even in the face of evidence to the contrary and protest from the citizenship.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment, Environmentalism, Research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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