by Bretton Davie
Saskatchewan’s lively economy is drawing people back to the province from Alberta, but the boom is causing controversial issues to move east as well, including the debate over oil sands.
In August, the province sold six oil sands exploration licences to companies interested in future development. One company, Oil Sands Quest, has already begun heavy exploration in northern Saskatchewan.
But according to John Nilson, the NDP’s minister of environment, oils sands development is still a few years off and “if it ever does develop to anything that is economically viable, we will do it in a way that protects the environment for the long term.”
But environmental groups say now is the time to develop legislation to protect areas from potential development. “Make sure that you (Saskatchewan people) are ready, because once these oil companies start coming, they come with a vengeance,” warned Lindsay Telfer, director of Sierra Club of Canada’s prairie chapter.
The economic gains of oil sands production are no doubt enticing. Oil and gas profits helped Alberta declare it was the only debt free province in 2004. And it looks like Saskatchewan wants its piece of the oil sands pie. “We are optimistic about the potential for an oil sands and oil shale industry in the province,” said Eric Cline, Saskatchewan’s minister of industry and resource in a recent government press release.
But environmental groups are wary of oil sands projects moving forward. The Sierra Club claims the Alberta oil sands have already caused long terms environment impacts on boreal forest and water supplies.
“I think the Saskatchewan government needs to learn from the areas where Alberta went wrong,” said Telfer.
People need to know that Saskatchewan oil sands projects are not mines, like in Alberta, she added. In Saskatchewan, a process of in-situ extraction, where steam is used to separate the heavy oil from the sand, would likely be needed. The in-situ technique uses tremendous amounts of natural gas to produce the steam, and that means high carbon emissions, she said.
Nilson admitted oil sands in Alberta are having an impact on the environment. “Basically, if we stopped the oil sands right now, Canada could meet Kyoto (commitments) without much difficulty,” he said.
But Nilson maintains that Saskatchewan is not going to follow in Alberta’s footsteps. “The changes that have happened after 40 years of oil sands work in Alberta are very, very difficult to repair, and we’re not going to let ourselves get into that position at all,” he said.
The minister said that in order for oil sands development to move forward in Saskatchewan, cleaner extraction techniques are needed. “We’ve been developing new techniques to deal with all of this,” he said, pointing to the success of the Petroleum Technology Research Centre at the University of Regina and its research in heavy oil extraction in western Saskatchewan.
But there is currently no oil sands research going on at the PTRC according to Kathryn Macleod, communications coordinator for the PTRC.
The Saskatchewan Research Council, a government funded research body, says on its website that they are doing oil sands research. But they were unable to conduct an interview concerning the details due to the coming election.
Nilson also stated that every oil company is in the business right now of developing better ways of extracting oil, and that makes him more confident that the impacts seen in Alberta will not happen in Saskatchewan.
But environmental groups have long contended that oil companies are not in the business of saving the environment. They are in the business of making money. “Saskatchewan has to get on the ball and ensure it’s protective of environmental health now,” Telfer said. “I think that companies always say they’re creating cleaner techniques.”
“Those cleaner techniques are hypothetical at the moment.” According to Telfer, companies will only be as clean as government regulations require them to be.