This is the Life: New voice in the oilsands debate

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I don’t follow Alberta politics enough to know much about Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, but a recent CBC Radio interview left me admiring his honesty and pragmatism.

I’m just a mayor, he said, and I shouldn’t even be involved in this argument. But the other levels of government are dropping the ball and no one is saying what needs to be said. Nenshi was talking about the polarized battle currently going on about the construction of oil pipelines.

What made his comments stand out in my mind? He is the first elected official I have heard admitting there is an elephant in the room with regards to energy and natural resource extraction. We need to be aware, he said, that the oilsands contain a huge amount of fossil fuels that are in demand around the world, but eventually, perhaps sooner than we think, other forms of energy will supplant them and their value will plummet.

Huh? Here’s a very bright man — academic, business and non-profit credentials teeming in his resume — and he’s basically saying that Alberta and Canada need to make hay while the sun shines, that today’s Canadian petroleum reserves just might be yesterday’s Dutch tulip domination. Believe him or don’t, but I think he deserves credit for adding an entirely new angle to the debate about the oilsands and the need for pipelines to help move the product to international markets.

For a long time, I’ve been of the opinion that the headlong rush to develop the Athabasca reserves was unwarranted. Within my own company I’ve often been the one to say that I don’t want to be the beta test lab rat — give me a product or service after it has been tested and tried at other sites first. Experiment on another body and come to see me when you have results. Same with the tarsands or oilsands or whatever your philosophy causes you to call them. Why not prove the various technologies elsewhere, or at least on a smaller scale, and then talk about large-scale development?

That’s probably been the most pragmatic argument among those who worry, rightfully, about the environmental impacts and potential devastating long-term effects on water, air and wildlife in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Technologies have improved dramatically in recent years, so let them keep improving until we are convinced they won’t ruin this little part of the planet.

But industry poses an equally strong argument, I think, that the technology only develops when it is put to use. Great strides aren’t made in laboratories and on computers — they happen out in the field, where the working experience increases investment and innovation.

Those two sides have predominantly shaped the battlefield over oil sand development and, more recently, pipeline projects. Market interests battle environmental concerns.

So along comes Nenshi and says that it is governments’ responsibility to maximize the benefits of resources today so that tomorrow’s generations don’t lose out. Move the argument toward how we make the extraction of resources as clean and safe as possible, ensuring we get full economic value when we know the demand is high. Don’t risk twiddling our thumbs too long and losing out on the economic benefits that could accrue long into the future.

What Nenshi didn’t say in the interview I heard, though he no doubt has thought it out (he has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard, after all) is how we make sure that the people, who are the true owners of the resource, get their fair share of the pie. I think if it is a straight trade for jobs, it’s a lousy deal. But if royalties and tax dollars flow into government coffers, to be invested in infrastructure, education, a sustaining fund (which should be a lot higher by now than the Heritage Fund’s $16 billion) and affordable services that don’t leave the province in a debt and deficit situation, his argument gets much more compelling.

I’d like to hear a lot more from Nenshi in these discussions and a lot less from public relations hacks. The talks would likely be more meaningful than they are now.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.