ON March 1, the U.S. State Department released its draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS)  for TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would increase the flow of Alberta’s tar sands oil to the U.S. by an estimated 510,000 barrels per day. It’s a big deal, both for those who support additional tar sands development and for those who want to limit the pace and scale of the world’s most controversial energy development.
For the latter, the draft SEIS was a disappointment. Like the original Environmental Impact Statement, the SEIS does not adequately account for the pipeline’s impact on water and climate . In particular, the SEIS ignored evidence  that Keystone XL would contribute significantly to the escalation of the already rapid expansion of the tar sands, one of the world’s dirtiest forms of energy, and the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Not surprisingly, this suited Alberta Premier Alison Redford just fine. Redford had just returned from a “mission” to Washington, D.C., where she played fast and loose with the facts as she tried to convince American politicians that Keystone was an integral part of what she likes to call responsible energy development. For her, the draft SEIS was the long-overdue next step in the approval process, and she used the opportunity to exaggerate and mischaracterize Alberta’s environmental record.
“On behalf of the people of Alberta, I welcome further progress towards a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline,” Redford gushed in a press release  issued shortly after the SEIS was made public. “I had the opportunity to speak today to U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobsen and Gary Doer, Canada’s Ambassador to the U.S., where I reinforced Alberta’s efforts to place strong environmental policy and clean technology development on an equal footing with a healthy energy sector.”
It’s no secret the Alberta government has gone out of its way to ensure the health of the oil industry, but her description of Alberta’s environmental policy as “strong,” and tar sands development in particular as “responsible,” continue to rely on the Pinocchio Strategy of Public Relations: Tell little black lies and hope your nose doesn’t grow.
It’s already well documented that Alberta’s climate change strategy has been an abject failure , in large part because of its failure to adopt  a meaningful carbon tax, but there’s more to Alberta’s failure to adequately manage the environmental impacts of the tar sands than just hot air.
Andrew Nikiforuk recently reminded us that air pollution from the Peace River tar sands in northwest Alberta has forced residents to abandon their homes . Recent research indicates that the tar sands toxic tailings ponds are leaking into the groundwater , something the Alberta government has not been adequately monitoring while continuing to allow mines and the tailings ponds they create to expand . There’s also the little matter of air pollution that is depositing troubling amounts of toxic chemicals in the lakes and rivers  in the tar sands region, despite the fact the government’s monitoring program has been unable to detect them during its 20 years of operation.
Redford also praised the SEIS for “acknowledge[ing] Alberta’s environmental leadership” by referencing the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) , “a comprehensive land-use plan for the oil sands region that sets out strict triggers and limits through environmental frameworks, and sets aside a significant amount of protected land.”
Redford’s comments, no doubt written by a PR specialist with little or no understanding of what constitutes environmental leadership, refers to a single paragraph in the SEIS  that references the LARP as part of the “ongoing” mitigation of the environmental impacts of tar sands development being undertaken by Canadian officials.
In fact, the SEIS admits that the State Department “did not conduct an assessment of the potential impacts of the Canadian portion of the proposed project.” Instead, it simply included what one can only presume from reading the Alberta government’s website was sanguine and misleading information, carefully constructed to “Tell It Like it Is ” by a government increasingly aware of the gaping chasm between the reality on the ground and the words that come out of its collective mouth.
There is much to be said about the integrity and effectiveness of the LARP, none of which you’ll find in the SEIS. The Pembina Institute, for instance, has assessed the ability of the LARP  to achieve the government’s stated commitment to setting cumulative environmental limits beyond which tar sands development would not proceed. In many respects, the LARP fails miserably.
A few examples will suffice, I think, to add to the government’s failure to reduce GHG emissions and put the lie to Redford’s misleading statements about Alberta’s so-called “environmental leadership.”
There is no mention, for instance, of a policy that would prevent the massive obliteration of wetlands in the region, which are an essential component of the ecological integrity of an area larger than many U.S. states. Nor is there any means of compensating for wetland destruction, even though the LARP’s Regional Advisory Council recommended that the LARP include offsets and market-based instruments to conserve wetlands and biodiversity. This is a considerable weakening of Alberta’s previous tar sands plan, which had included the objective of implementing a conservation offset strategy by 2012.
Neither does the LARP adequately address woodland caribou conservation needs in the Lower Athabasca region. Woodland caribou, a legally listed threatened species at both the federal and provincial levels, has been declining in northeastern Alberta for decades despite government commitments and recovery plans to ensure their survival. Indeed, most biologists have concluded that without drastic emergency interventions, planned tar sands development will all but ensure they disappear over the next 50 years.
Redford’s comments are part of an increasingly sophisticated shell game.
The Alberta government has always done just enough to make it appear it is “balancing” environmental protection and economic development, but anyone who is paying attention knows that the government rarely achieves any of the laudable commitments it makes to protecting the environment from the impacts of rampant and irresponsibly managed industrial development. In other words, environmental policy in Alberta has always been about providing the necessary cover to continue with business-as-usual.
While it was beyond the scope of the SEIS to assess the integrity of Alberta’s environmental policy, it should have been easy enough to include a more accurate characterization of what the truth behind all the little black lies that pass for effective public policy in the tar sands.
Shame on you, State Department, for not doing your homework. And shame on you, Alison Redford, for misleading Americans about what goes on in Alberta’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind northern boreal forests.
Image Credit: PremierofAlberta  via flickr.