No regs anytime soon, but tar sands workers to double by 2016: internal docs

The Conservative government is planning for double the number of workers at two large oil companies in the Athabasca tar sands area within just three years, internal records show.

The news comes as Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed in an end-of-year interview with Global News on Thursday that his government is again delaying regulations for the oil and gas sector to curb greenhouse gas emissions -- pushing off the plan to reduce climate pollution to "over the next couple of years."

Harper's comments followed Thursday's announcement from the Joint Review Panel of the National Energy Board, recommending the federal Cabinet approve Enbridge Inc's Northern Gateway pipeline project to transport oil from the Alberta tar sands across British Columbia to Asia; an analysis by the Pembina Institute shows the greenhouse gas pollution generated by filling the Northern Gateway pipeline "would be equivalent to adding three million cars a year to Canada's road."

A July 2013 briefing note to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, marked "secret" and released to PressProgress under access to information law, shows just how much the Conservative government expects air traffic carrying tar sands workers to small airports and landing strips, known as aerodromes, to balloon.

"Most oil and gas companies transporting workers to and from the Athabasca Oil Sands Area (AOSA) by air own and operate private aerodromes, which are not required by regulation to meet Transport Canada’s certification requirements," the briefing note states.

"One particular uncertified aerodrome, Firebag, currently serves 200K passengers for Suncor and 150K for Imperial Oil, annually. It is expected these figures will double by 2016."

The scale of growth is stunning: 350,000 workers in 2013 projected to skyrocket to 700,000 workers in 36 months -- and this is just one of 47 aerodromes in or near the Athabasca tar sands area.

The briefing note doesn't address environmental concerns, but rather zeroes in on aviation issues, given this "growth in air traffic has already created pressure on the air traffic management system."

Developing a plan to reduce climate pollution falls to Raitt's cabinet colleague, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Aglukkaq is the fifth minister in the environment portfolio since the Conservatives came to power in 2006 -- and just the latest to fail to act on a promise to introduce emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector. And Harper made clear Thursday that Canada is still a few years away because it now needs to be done "in concert with" the United States.

Even with regulations, we already know that Canada will fail to meet its watered-down target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020.)

And even before this foot-dragging on regs for the oil and gas sector, the late Peter Lougheed, former Alberta Premier and an old Tory stalwart, raised qualms about the pace of development of the Alberta tar sands. He continued to raise concerns until his death in September 2012, and it's a perspective that continues to gain steam, laid out recently in an Edmonton Journal editorial titled The risks of rushing the oil sands.

Lougheed "often lamented the speed of bitumen development in the province. His motto was 'one project at a time,'" author Andrew Nikiforuk wrote after his death.

"Over the last decade libertarians rubber stamped more than 100 projects and the gold rush overwhelmed infrastructure, bloated wages, drove up house prices and generally inflated the cost of living. Why bother with a trade or an education when a petro job will garner you 10 times the income, asked Lougheed. Knowing that busts invariably follow booms, he viewed overheated growth in the tar sands as a great calamity. Real owners don't overheat their economies or stress out their communities: they go slow."

With the number of workers at two tar sands companies expected to double in the span of 36 months, does this look like going slow?

Photo: royaldutchshell. Used under a Creative Commons BY-ND 2.0 licence.