Long day in tar sands debate
You’d think that Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business’s MBA Speaker’s Series would have been a sympathetic audience for their “Oil or Tar” sands debate on Alberta’s energy resources. Indeed the MBA student organizers and greeters at the March event all looked like typical business school fare: keen, young and sharp – a group of aspiring “organization men,” and women.
As a result, Don Thompson, president of Alberta’s Oil Sands Developers Group, appeared quite confident. This despite the fact that he was to defend the industry’s position alone against two environmentalists: Cam Fenton, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and Cheryl Gladu, a Concordia lecturer, with a background in green building.
“I’ve done presentations like this in front of a variety of groups across the country,” explained Thompson. “It’s nice to get a chance to flesh out both sides of what is a very complicated issue.”
The Alberta energy executive began his presentation by reciting sobering statistics regarding energy demand: a projected global population increase to 9.1 billion people by 2050, millions of third world and emerging market folk moving into middle class lifestyles, and the pressures these would have on resources.
“We are a carbon dependent world,” noted Thompson, a 30-year industry veteran. “And Canada will one day have an integrated supply system, which includes a mosaic such as fossil fuels, solar, wind and many other energy sources. However it will take time to get there. The question is what we do between now and then.”
Thompson’s suggestion is that Canadians develop the 170 billion barrels of petroleum in Alberta’s oil (or as the environmentalists call them: “tar”) sands. “These resources bring innumerable benefits to Canadians, particularly those in provinces that benefit from federal transfer payments, many of which are funded by energy taxes and royalties,” said Thompson. “Furthermore, many of the world’s existing energy reserves are in highly unstable regions, so there is a significant security of supply argument to be made.”
Fenton though was quick to challenge Thompson, citing many of the irritants that environmentalists have been complaining. These range from high levels of blood cancers in natives who live near the sites, lack of protection from production waste, water contamination and overstated reclamation claims. “The fact is that much of the research we are getting regarding spin-off effects of development are from industry-financed sources,” said Fenton. “We need more independent research and better government oversight.”
Gladu was equally merciless. “We need to increase the role of citizens in the debate,” said the Concordia lecturer. “Canadians expect that the taxes we pay will advance the community. We have to make sure that happens, because we certainly cannot rely on the oil industry to do that.”
Merely outmanned two to one, Thomson was holding his own. However debate moderators allowed audience members to have a voice, particularly a large vocal group of environmentalists that had begun to filter in, without giving Thomson (who it soon became clear, was the only vocal defender on the industry’s position) time to respond. At one point Thomson appeared frustrated at having to rebut a large number of comments, questions and criticisms from the audience in just a few minutes.
But he eventually assumed a more thoughtful tone. “I am used to being the bad guy,” he said at one point. “I guess that’s my role in this debate.”
Photo caption: Don Thompson, president of Alberta’s Oil Sands Development Group had his hands full in a recent Concordia debate.
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