Downstream discrepancies: water and energy in Alberta

Earlier this week Sarah Boon wrote a nice piece on how Canada is, by undermining its water policies, also undermining its cultural foundations. I agree, and have said as much (though not so thoroughly) here, by arguing that the long-held wisdom of the policies and norms that helped to build a society should not be discarded lightly, even if they are not wholly satisfactory any longer.

Instead of jettisoning them, we should think of them as a kind of upstream heritage. Upstream, that is, in a temporal sense where our water histories affect the options we have now. Likewise, today’s policies will constrain our options later.

In Alberta, we can see contests over the upstream heritage of water histories being played out in real time. And we can note a significant discrepancy.

On the one hand, Alberta recently approved an expansion of the Jackpine Oil Sands project. Canada’s environment minister openly remarked that there would be negative impacts but that the expansion was “justified.” But what justified it is altogether unclear, as this nice post details. Even the Edmonton Journal is worried about the risks of rushing Oil Sands development. And with the environmental agency that monitors the Oil Sands in danger of folding, the on-going awkwardness of over 170 square kilometers of manmade lakes burying waste products and recent concerns those lakes (read tailings ponds) are leaking, the Environment Minister’s claim just doesn’t wash.

Now, if we turn and look the other way, to Alberta’s only upstream neighbour – British Columbia – we see a different story. There, the Site C dam approval process has Alberta up in arms. The assessment for the dam is here, but Alberta is worried about elevated levels of mercury downstream (i.e. in Alberta) if the dam is approved. The Ft. Chipewyan Metis are suing BC Hydro over the effects of the two existing dams in that same watershed (see here and here). There is also community opposition to the project (and has been for some time, as I’ve noted before).

To me, the double standard over water and energy reveals a glaring discrepancy in the way downstream effects are understood. The Ft. Chipewyan communities are downstream of both B.C. and most of Alberta’s energy projects, so they see and live the negative impacts of both. Alberta, by contrast, is at once claiming that its upstream neighbour should be more careful while using only the loosest ‘justification’ when it comes to its own downstream effects. Of course, nobody will be surprised if the discrepancy rests on some argument for self-interest. But in this case, the self-interested party(ies) are, as Sarah so nicely put it, undermining their own foundations.

In other news, here is a recent study on un-burnable oil that was just published.

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