It's time to have a rational conversation about the oil sands | What's Left

'We can't shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time. And, in the meantime, we have to manage that transition.” That was a statement made by Justin Trudeau last week about the Alberta oil sands.

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Trudeau was immediately assailed by individuals and groups on both sides of the issue. Political leaders in Alberta, including Rachel Notley, saw it as an attack on an industry that is currently a major economic priority for the province and are adamant that “the oilsands will power the global economy for generations to come”. Meanwhile, those who see the oil sands as being a huge ecological disaster condemned Trudeau for not committing to more immediate action.

But, will Trudeau and the Liberals take substantive measures to transition Canada off of fossil fuels and to sustainable and renewable resources? It does not appear the government intends on pushing forward with a meaningfully comprehensive agenda.

The fact remains that the above statement by Trudeau is probably reflective of reality. So, for those interested in having an informed, rational debate about how to move forward as a country, it might not be a bad place to start.

First, fossil fuels are by their very nature limited. There is a finite amount of oil in the oil sands and, even putting aside environmental concerns, it is scientifically impossible to extract it all. It is also limited by economics and technology. At a certain point, it becomes too expensive to extract that there is no financial motivation to do so.

However, if the world is to avert an environmental catastrophe, most of the oil sands need to stay in the ground. It is a pretty straight-forward calculation.

The question then becomes how to transition. When it comes to natural resources, transitioning is hard – because it costs money, takes a conscious decision, and usually replaces profits with fairness, society, and the environment. And, without a commitment to a comprehensive and just transition strategy, the results can be devastating. Just ask anyone who lived in a community dependent on the Atlantic cod fishery, or in an old mining town, auto and steel workers who faced free trade and automation, or even in farming towns during a drought year. When the resources an economy depends on tail off, trouble hits and it hits hard. The damage is devastating and the poverty lasts for decades.

When it comes to just transition, we have plenty of history where society has done it poorly. If the government closed the oil sands tomorrow, we would repeat that terrible history. Even if it waited ten years, without a meaningful transition plan, people and their communities will be left hurting. So, to say that we need to transition and that it will take some time is perhaps the most accurate statement one could make about the oil sands.

The government (federal, provincial and municipal) needs to implement a just transition plan that democratically, actively and carefully moves regional economies, like those of Fort McMurray, away from destructive and non-renewable resources. Even before that happens, it must invest in new opportunities for workers so that they can still have good paying jobs in their communities and take care of their families.

The sense of urgency when it comes to responding to environmental destruction is coming from a real place. And, the best way to make that happen is not to put on the blinders and make broad polemical statements. It is to acknowledge reality and put forward the money to make change.

Canadians need action. We need to implement the strategy for just transition today. A strategy that both protects the environment and creates a healthier and more sustainable work for the future.

Because, the future we seek is one of healthy communities for our families and children, not just the end of our livelihoods.

Notley Claps Back At Trudeau’s Stance That Oilsands Will Be Phased Out