Graham Thomson: Both Redfords are playing loose with facts

In the great Redford-versus-Redford dispute over the oilsands, who are we supposed to believe — Robert the actor or Alison the politician? The short answer: neither.

Both are guilty of hyperbole and distorting the facts.

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Albertans might be feeling a bit miffed at Robert Redford’s video attack on the oilsands, or as he calls them, the tarsands. After all, it is more than a bit over-the-top by portraying the oilsands industry as the fount of all environmental evil.

“It is producing enough carbon pollution to wreak havoc with our climate for decades to come,” says Redford as we see pictures of smokestacks, floods and oil spills.

All that’s missing is a puppy swimming in a tailings pond.

“And the pipelines that carry this toxic tarsands fuel are a direct threat to our own drinking-water supplies.”

The oilsands, for one thing, are not the largest source of greenhouse gases in the world, or North America or even Canada. They are the fastest-growing source of emissions, but they are not the largest source.

A larger source is our gasoline-burning cars and our light-duty trucks. The largest source is power stations, particularly coal-burning power stations.

So the largest threat, by far, to the climate is coal, not the oilsands.

By simplistically demonizing the oilsands, environmental celebrities such as Redford promote the mistaken notion that we can solve the problem of man-made climate change by simply shutting down the oilsands. Yes, we need to burn less fossil fuels, but the fuel that should be the biggest target is coal.

And as for a threat to drinking water, Americans need to look at their love affair with fracking, the process of injecting highly pressurized water and chemicals underground to fracture shale rocks to recover natural gas and oil.

The Alberta government has been quick to dismiss Robert Redford’s video as “not based on science.” And Premier Alison Redford questions whether the actor has any environmental credibility.

The question could just as easily be posed about the Alberta government.

Premier Redford likes to brag about Alberta being a world leader in environmental protection. In a Washington, D.C., speech in April, she said: “Alberta is home to some of the most environmentally friendly, progressive legislation in the world.”

She talked about the province’s program that requires large emitters to pay a $15-per-tonne fee for carbon emissions above legislated limits.

And there was more: “We are also pushing ahead with plans to capture and store as much of our carbon as possible. The government of Alberta is providing $1.3 billion in funding for two large-scale carbon capture and sequestration projects.”

It sounds convincing until you look at Alberta’s environmental record.

That $15 fee is targeting the intensity of emissions, not overall emissions. The result is that Alberta’s emissions are rising, not dropping.

The government hopes to reduce emissions in a decade, but that reduction is almost wholly dependent on carbon capture and sequestration working. And that’s a big question mark.

Premier Redford’s speech also made it sound as if the oilsands tailing ponds will be gone soon. They won’t.

Then there’s Alberta’s “world-class” environmental monitoring system that is decades late in coming and has yet to be made fully operational.

Redford’s defence of the oilsands is based on snippets of truth — the government is doing more now than ever before to improve the environmental sustainability of the oilsands.

The problem is that for decades it was doing very little environmental oversight. and in fact for years denied the largest energy-extraction project on the planet was having any impact on the environment at all.

Likewise, Robert Redford’s condemnation of the oilsands has some truth to it — namely that the industry has a large carbon footprint compared to the extraction of conventional oil.

However, both are exaggerating their cases.

Bottom line: When it comes to environmental facts about the oilsands, you can’t trust an actor or a politician.

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