Bishop spurns oilsands development
Kelly Cryderman, Calgary Herald
Roman Catholic leader wants environmental concerns addressed; industry welcomes debate
In an online pastoral letter for Catholics in the area, Bishop Luc Bouchard of the Diocese of St. Paul calls for a moratorium on further oilsands development until environmental and social concerns are addressed.
"I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oilsands constitutes a serious moral problem," Bouchard wrote in the long and extensively footnoted letter.
Surface mining of oilsands destroys the boreal forest ecosystem, pollutes water, releases greenhouse gases, and creates toxic tailings ponds that will exist long after the plants have closed, and will require 100 years of supervision and maintenance, Bouchard said.
"The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken."
Bouchard says his criticisms are not aimed at the people of Fort McMurray, but the "oil company executives in Calgary and Houston, to government leaders in Edmonton and Ottawa, and to the general public whose excessive consumerist lifestyle drives the demand for oil."
Guy Boutilier, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said he applauds the bishop for his environmental concerns and for encouraging debate.
"And I say that as a proud parent ... who has called Fort McMurray home for the last 31 years. I believe the 21st century will be about what we do for the next 25 years when it comes to positive initiatives for dealing with tailing ponds, reclamation and our premier's $2-billion initiative on carbon capture and storage," he said.
Boutilier said he thinks the environmental battles are done, and the time has come to marry the environment, energy production and the economy in a way that is sustainable for the future.
Bouchard lays out his concerns using what he describes as "foundational Catholic theological principles supporting environmental ethics."
He then calls for 10 actions constituting a "serious commitment," including safeguarding the integrity of the Athabasca watershed, implementing a national energy conservation program, and national reductions in greenhouse gases to offset emissions from oilsands processing plants.
Bouchard's words come as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers predicts that oilsands investment in Alberta this year will fall to about half of what was projected last summer, due to deferred projects.
The bishop's own priests acknowledge Bouchard's words are likely to stir
Father Gerard Gauthier, the Catholic pastor for St. John the Baptist parish in Fort McMurray -- which falls under the Diocese of St. Paul -- said he expects his congregation's reaction to Bouchard's comments to be mixed.
"Those who are working for the oil will say, 'how dare the bishop do this?' Those who are more environmentally consciouswill say, 'he didn't go far en-
While Gauthier said "North America is addicted to oil," he added that addressing that addiction is the responsibility of all Americans and Canadians -- not just the oilsands companies or the people of Fort McMurray.
"I certainly hope that there will be some discussion, and out of that, a greater respect for creation," Gauthier said.
In the past, Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, has criticized the pace of oilsands development allowed by the provincial government.
"I have a faith and my faith isn't telling me we should be at an absolute moratorium. What it's telling me is we need to be responsible," said Blake, responding to Bouchard's comments.
"I can't say what God wants me to do or not do. I can just say within reason there are things we should be doing differently."
Blake said she is "relieved" by the current economic slowdown, as the community is still suffering labour shortages and problems in providing transportation services.
In reaction to Bouchard's comments, CAPP issued a statement saying "we invited the input of all Canadians to identify and address their concerns regarding oilsands development and we accept the bishop's input as part of that process."
The industry lobby group said it would like to sit down to talk with the bishop. "We strongly believe oilsands development is sustainable, regulated and the cornerstone of Canada's resource supply," CAPP said.
The Fort McMurray-based Oil Sands Developers Group offered to speak with Bouchard, and also to take him for a tour of the oilsands.
"We take those concerns seriously," group president Don Thompson said Monday.
Simon Dyer, oilsands researcher with the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, called Bouchard's letter "amazingly well-researched and thoughtful."
Dyer said Bouchard's letter seems to be a part of a rising trend -- increasingly, faith-based organizations are realizing the importance of environmental conservation.
"The environment and social issues here are important to Albertans and Canadians."
The St. Paul Diocese covers 155,916 square kilometres, and serves about 55,000 Catholics in northeastern Alberta.