Canadian churches seek federal tar sands plan

By  Glen Argan, Western Catholic Reporter
  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}EDMONTON - Canadian Church leaders are preparing to bring the voice of Christian faith to bear on controversies surrounding the Alberta tar sands.

Following meetings May 21-27 with people who work and live in northern Alberta, church leaders intend to lobby the federal government for tighter environmental regulation of the huge and controversial source of energy.

The 17-member delegation was organized by the ecumenical social justice coalition Kairos. It visited northern Alberta to hear from the people and interested groups with an eye to developing a “testimony or statement.”

“We need a strategy to shape change,” said Mary Corkery, Kairos’ executive director.  “We are not calling for stopping this kind of development. We are saying that Canada needs a plan.”

Beginning in September church leaders will be asking Ottawa to develop a national energy strategy with greater emphasis on renewable energy sources, tighter environmental regulations that govern tar sands development and long-term independent studies of the health effects of tar sands development in Native communities, particularly in and around Fort Chipewyan, said Corkery.

Church leaders aren’t necessarily asking that development slow down, Corkery said.

“So far, people are also conscious that they want to protect those people who are working. A lot of people depend on those jobs right now,” she said. 

Kairos brought together church leaders, including Bruce Adema, president of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). Three aboriginal leaders also participated in the tour that stopped in Edmonton, Fort McMurray, various indigenous communities, and Fort Chipewyan.

After visiting the tar sands, Weisgerber said he was surprised by the magnitude of the development, describing the footprint on the environment, such as intake of water and the creation of waste, as “huge.”

Weisgerber said the delegation was conscious that the environmental issues surrounding tar sands development are not solely the responsibility of local populations.

“This is about us,” he said. “There is such a desire and demand for oil and the demand is created by us.”

Corkery echoed that sentiment and said it is important that church and other leaders be in solidarity with those whose lives are affected.

“We fuel the demand for oil and we have to be part of the solution,” she said. “We need to keep asking hard questions and we need to involve people in our church communities in doing that . . .  to get people involved in democratic participation in one of the most important issues we face.”

Church delegates on the Kairos trip agreed parishioners and church congregations should be part of the discussion about the future of tar sands development, Corkery told The Catholic Register.

“We decided to engage the people in our churches in discussion. These issues are too important to every Canadian,” she said. “It’s not as if there isn’t a growing awareness and concern. People who work in oil companies and people who work for government also have children and grandchildren. They are concerned. They may not be willing to go as far as environmentalists and the public wish, but it’s all in motion.”

The tour included meetings with a wide range of  tar sands stakeholders, including Aboriginal communities with health concerns, those benefiting from contracts and employment, labor representatives, community leaders in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan, and oil company executives.

“Nobody is denying that there’s a problem,” Weisgerber said, adding that there is pressure to proceed with the development before solving the problems. “We don’t know ultimately if they will be solved.”

He also expressed sympathy for the people of Fort McMurray. “They feel they have been maligned mercilessly in the press.”

Corkery said oil companies seem to recognize the environmental issues and understand the risks of unchecked development.

“They feel they are doing everything that can be done and that science will come up with solutions,” Corkery said. “I don’t believe that’s the case, partly because of the tremendous pressure for expansion.”

The growth of development has put pressure on hospitals, roads and housing, Corkery said. When the recession hit, the oil companies chopped 17,000 jobs, she said, but now that the oil price is rising, development is gearing up again.

“We need jobs,” she said. “We need good sustainable jobs. But plans for job creation are not necessarily best left to oil companies.” Oil companies are about “making a profit,” she said, not about creating energy or jobs.

“We reject the false choice between the environment and jobs,” she said. “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”

With files from Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News.

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