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Lessons from Roadkill

Publié le 1 janvier, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Cycling my way across Alberta and gathering stories about the impacts of the development boom with a group called “To The Tar Sands,” I realized that it was our slow pace that gave us access to perspectives on the boom that most Albertans are not hearing. By slowing down the pace of development, Albertans will increase our ability to minimize, compensate, and pay our respects to the ‘roadkill’ of this boom—the people and places that are being negatively impacted—that continues to fall to the wayside along the metaphorical highway which is our current highspeed path to industrialization of the oil sands.

Adrian Wallett, Spiral, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Roadkill was the first thing to bother us. We were on a cycling trip across Alberta and roadkill was literally getting in our way. That first stretch, Waterton Park Village to Pincher Creek, proved to be the worst. Greg took photos of bungled birds to post on our website. Jackie talked about the decapitated deer she had seen while she prepared dinner. I tried not to think about it.

We were a group of nine, soon to be joined by ten others, who had gathered from all across Canada and even as far away as California to stage a spectacle, learn the facts, and get Albertans talking. Our destination: the Athabasca tar sands, an area the size of Florida stretching across northern Alberta, the development of which represents Canada’s largest single contributor to growing greenhouse gas emissions 1. Motivated by climate change activism, organizers from the Sierra Youth Coalition (SYC), the youth branch of the Sierra Club of Canada, had begun work a year prior to coordinate a fact-finding mission to the tar sands. They raised the funds through private donations to cover the basic costs for the trip and began the campaign to get interested youth from across Canada to participate. They coordinated in earnest with local organizers across the province to identify key communities in which to stop, key points of view to capture, and to mobilize a host of hospitable Albertans who would house, feed, and even dry rain-soaked cycling socks as we passed through their communities. The findings from the trip would be communicated through a website, www.tothetarsands.ca, that would host blogs, photos, and videos documenting the stories that we heard.

The trip came to fruition and from August 15 to September 10, 2007, we cycled an estimated 1500 kilometers, visiting towns, cities, and First Nations communities along the way. We talked to politicians, oil sands workers, urban planners, farmers, union reps, historians, the media, and everyone on any street corner or side of the highway that was curious enough to stop. We visited the Alberta legislature, historic ranches, a solar community, community resource centres, and, of course, the tar sands.

Writing now, three months later, my interest is not to write a debriefing on the oil sands. For that, I would refer readers to the Pembina Organization’s Oil Sands Watch website which contains ample research and perspective on both what is happening in Alberta and on ways to make development more environmentally and economically sound (http://www.oilsandswatch.org/). Instead, I would like to share several stories that are particularly representative of the repeated cry of ‘Slow Down!’ that we heard echoing over and over again in the perspectives of the people we met. I would also like to share the metaphor that roadkill became for me on this trip. However, first is a some background on the tar sands, particularly as it concerns the current pace of development.


The commercial sale of bitumen from northern Alberta first occurred in 1930 2. However, economic activity around bitumen, the tar-like substance which is extracted from the sand to make petroluem, didn’t really rev-up until the period that began in the mid-1990s, when the concurrence of higher oil prices, insecure relations between the US and the Middle East, technological developments, and aggressive federal and provincial policies to attract investment conspired to make tar sands production profitable 3,4,5. Today, oil sands companies boast record profits 6. In 2006, one of these companies, EnCana, even set the record for the biggest annual profit in Canadian history 7,8.

In 1995, at the beginning of this period, the National Oil Sands Task Force outlined the strategy for oil sands development for the subsequent 25 years. They set the target of 1.2 million barrels of oil produced per day from the Athabasca oil sands by 2020. However, with the climate for oil sands extraction so favorable globally and in Alberta, the province began producing 1.1 million barrels per day in 2004, a full 16 years ahead of schedule 1. This gargantuan growth is expected to continue into the future. Predictions are that by 2015, Alberta will be producing 2.7 million barrels per day 9.

The people we met, the stories we heard

As we biked the highways through a province dotted with pump jacks, pickup trucks, and sour gas flares, I expected that we would have to really dig to find the dirt on the tar sands. I assumed that while most Albertans would sympathize with our environmental worries about the destruction of the North American boreal (which makes up one-quarter of the planet’s remaining original forests), the air pollution, and the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the tar sands development, they would feel that the economic benefits experienced as a result of the boom trump these concerns 10. I knew that there were Albertans who felt this way. In fact, I was willing to wager that most Albertans felt this way, but we didn’t meet many of them.

Instead, the people we met shared heartbreaking stories of failed small businesses, time and money diverted from families to fighting oil companies, and a general sense that development is occurring too fast. We met Carmen Ditzler, who started the now-defunct Whisky Creek Greenhouse near Bragg Creek. She and her husband decided they wanted to grow pesticide-free tomatoes to be sold locally. After years of barely breaking even and not recovering initial capital costs, struggling to minimize the hydrocarbon inputs to their plants, and pushing for change from inside Canada’s food system, these growers had to give up. In her ghost-town of a greenhouse she said, “Many, many people are being left behind…it’s a boom for few. It’s a boom for the government coffers, but you can’t see it in the highways or the schools or the hospitals […] or on the farms. Where’s the boom? 11” With the cost of crop inputs such as natural gas and fuel going up and no promise from the province that Alberta’s wealth would be redistributed to small farms, Tim, a fellow cycler shared in her frustration, commenting that the abundance of what’s supposed to be cheap oil up North was not making oil cheaper for Albertans.

We met Anne Brown, a full-time mom turned full-time oil industry watchdog after one too many close-calls with the air pollutants involved in upgrading bitumen in Fort Saskatchewan. For seven years, she has fought the growth of bitumen upgrading facilities in her once fresh air hideaway turned Upgrader Alley. She told me, “We’re not activists, we’re just ordinary families, moms and dads, just trying to do the best for our families.” With Shell Canada and other industry partners poised to build an additional four upgrading facilities in the area over the next six years 12, Anne is saddened by the amount of time her attention to the industry activity takes from her family and realizes that, without a slow-down, her work as a concerned citizen is only going to demand more of her time.

While there were many others with equally heart-touching stories, their points of view can be summarized by saying that most believe the provincial government is ignoring the negative impacts that they and their communities are experiencing as a result of the oil sands developments. They expressed a strong desire for the pace to slow down so that the social and environmental benefits and costs of the rapid economic growth could be weighed. They felt ignored. As the kilometers clicked away and we came closer to our final destination, I tried to understand this change that I was seeing in my native Alberta. How was it that we were ignoring the perspectives from so many negatively-affected people and places? When I first moved away from Alberta several years ago, I often bragged about the friendliness of my home province, the way that even the biggest city there felt like a small town (where people take the time to greet each other, even in passing).

Changing gears

As cyclists on the province’s road ways, our slower pace made us more aware of the roadkill along the way. Our slower pace was also enabling us to learn more about the metaphoric roadkill of a society speeding along the short straight highway of an economic boom. People, like Carmen and Anne, are requesting that the pace of development slow down and that government and industry take the time to add their perspectives into the decision-making equations. They are joined by several key NGOs and public policy groups that continue to urge government and industry leaders to slow down. The Pembina Institute, the Sierra Club Prairie Chapter, and Greenpeace are all calling for a moratorium on further oil sands approvals 13. According to the Pembina Institute, “[a] moratorium means a temporary pause – in this case in the government’s approval of new oil sands projects and in the granting of new oil sands leases – until the right policies are in place to guide future development so that it’s environmentally, socially and economically responsible, and always in the best interest of Albertans.13

As I clanked my bike into a lower gear to climb “Super Test,” the big hill along Highway 63 right before the Suncor and Syncrude oil sands facilities, I realized that if we are to minimize, compensate, and at the very least pay our respects to the road kill of our economic development, then Alberta too needs to change gears.


1. Woynillowicz, Dan (2005). Oil Sands Fever: The environmental implications of Canada’s oil sands rush. Pembina Insitute. [on line] <http://www.pembina.org/pubs>
2. Alberta Government. Alberta Oil Sands Consultations Fact Sheet: Oil Sands Recorded History. [on line] <http://www.oilsandsconsultations.gov.ab.ca/resources.htm> (2006).
3. See note (1) above. While we cycled, the federal government was busy negotiating and ratifying the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), an agreement between Canada, the US, and Mexico “to work together to build a safer and more economically dynamic North America” (4). Criticisms of this agreement are that Canada has backed itself into a corner by being tied to the proportional sharing clause of NAFTA (which requires Canada to continue to export to the US the same percentage of total energy produced in Canada despite domestic factors) and the new agreements of the SPP which promise to further increase the rate of oil sands production, while simultaneously being signatory to the international Kyoto Protocol that demands a dramatic slowdown of greenhouse gas emissions (5).
4. Government of Canada (2007). Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America: About the Security and Prosperity Partnership. [on line] <http://www.spp-psp.gc.ca/overview/about-en.aspx>
5. Integrate This! Challenging the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America: Citizen’s Guide to the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) (2006). Council of Candians. [on line] <http://canadians.org/integratethis/backgrounders/guide/energy.html>
6. Taylor, Amy (2006). Thinking Like an Owner: Overhauling the Royalty and Tax Treatment of Alberta’s Oil Sands. Pembina Institute. [on line] <http://www.pembina.org/pubs>. See also note (1) above. The share of profits that Alberta gets from oil sands development has been a bone of contention for many concerned citizens and NGOs and was something we heard repeated criticisms about during our trip. The royalty regime employed in the tar sands until October 2007 had been originally worked out in the mid-1990s when conditions for oil sands development were not as lucrative as they are now. Under this regime, tar sands companies pay 1% royalties on gross revenues until all of their project costs are recovered at which point the royalty rate increases to 25% (6). On October 25, 2007, under mounting social pressure, the provincial government revised this so that the royalty rate for projects whose costs have not yet been recovered will start at 1%, and increase for every dollar oil is priced above $55 per barrel, to a maximum of 9% when oil is priced at $120 or higher. Similarly, for projects whose costs are recovered, the royalty rate will stay at 25% and increase for every dollar oil is priced above $55 per barrel to 40% when oil is priced at $120 or higher (8).
7. “EnCana posts biggest annual profit in Canadian history.” CBC News Online. [on line] <http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2007/02/15/encana.html> (February 15, 2007).
8. Alberta Government (October 25, 2007). The New Royalty Framework. [on line] <http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/About_Us/1293.asp>.
9. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) (July, 2005). Canadian Crude Oil Production and Supply Forecast 2005-2015. [on line] <http://www.capp.ca/default.asp?V_DOC_ID=1135>.
10. Dyer, Simon and Richard Schneider (2006). Death by a Thousands Cuts: Impacts of in situ oil sands development on Alberta’s Boreal Forest. Pembina Institute. [on line] <http://pembina.org/pubs>.
11. For more information, see <http://www.whiskeycreekgreenhouse.net/>.
12. Jaremko, Gordon (May 28, 2006). Upgrader alley keeps growing: Announcement increases proposed Edmonton-area plants to 12. Edmonton Journal.
13. Woynillowicz, Dan (2007). Oil Sands Fever Blueprint for Responsible Oil Sands Development, Pembina Institute. [on line] <http://www.pembina.org/pubs>; Tar Sands Time Out webpage (2006). Sierra Club. [on line] <http://www.tarsandstimeout.ca/>; and Stop the Tar Sands webpage (2006). Greenpeace Canada. [on line] <http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/campaigns/tarsands>
More perspectives from the To The Tar Sands cycling trip can be found at <www.tothetarsands.ca>.

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