Oil sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta, 2012. Photo courtesy of Kris Krüg/Flickr

Glen Argan: Oilsands pastoral letter deserves attention

  • February 25, 2019

Ten years ago, on Jan. 25, 2009, Bishop Luc Bouchard, then bishop of St. Paul, Alta., issued one of the most courageous and most ignored pastoral letters in Canadian Church history. “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands” did create a brief firestorm before dropping out of the public eye. On the 10th anniversary, nary a mention was made of the letter.

Bouchard’s letter did what a pastoral letter should do — take established Church teaching and apply it to a local situation. The largest centre in the St. Paul diocese is Fort McMurray, the home of massive oilsands developments. In concluding that “the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified,” the bishop undoubtedly knew he would draw heat both from his own faithful and from the powerful oil industry.

Oilsands development is both the engine of the Alberta economy and an emotional issue in the province. The willingness to judge the actions of the oil industry through anything but rose-coloured glasses is not widespread. 

Bouchard, however, had done two years of homework on the oilsands and relevant Catholic teaching. He examined areas of concern including the boreal forest ecosystem, water in the Athabasca watershed, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic tailing ponds.

He noted that all living creatures as well as the Earth itself are gifts from God which ought to be treated with respect. In that light, he wrote, “even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment.”

Much has changed over the past 10 years. Oilsands development has slowed due to the collapse of world price of oil. Nine months prior to the issuance of the bishop’s letter, 1,600 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond. The apologetic company pled guilty to violating two environmental laws and was fined $3 million. In August 2015, nevertheless, 31 great blue herons died in another Syncrude pond. Two months ago, a court issued Syncrude a $2.75-million fine.

A 2014 Environment Canada report found that massive amounts of toxic wastes are leaking into the groundwater and Athabasca River near the tailings ponds. A year earlier, a large containment dam for a tailings pond collapsed, spilling its contents into the watershed.

A year ago, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that a company which purchased the holdings of a bankrupt oil company is not responsible for cleaning up the environmental mess left by the bankrupt company’s non-producing wells. The decision could eventually leave taxpayers footing the multi-billion-dollar bill for cleaning up old oil wells.

In May 2015, Albertans elected a New Democratic Party government. While the NDP had previously taken a critical view of the oil industry and had called for a moratorium on new oilsands developments, it changed its tune once handed the reins of power.

Membership on its review panel on oil royalties was skewed to those favourable to the oil industry. The government has given rabid support for new pipeline developments regardless of environmental concerns. Donald Gutstein’s recent book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada (Lorimer, 2018) traces the interconnections between Premier Rachel Notley’s government and oil industry lobbyists. 

And then there is Pope Francis. His 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, while not mentioning the oilsands or other specific developments, buttressed the bishop’s concerns. Those with economic and political power “seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems (of climate change) or concealing their symptoms,” the Pope wrote. 

As well, special interest groups, such as large corporations which control technology and finance, “sideline” any issues which threaten their economic interests. “The most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.” 

Three years after issuing his historic pastoral letter, Bouchard was moved from St. Paul to become bishop of Trois Rivieres, Que. No reasons are ever given for episcopal transfers, so one can only speculate as to whether the pastoral letter in some way led to the bishop’s transfer.

All one can say with certainty is that the challenges issued by “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands” remain unanswered. The bishop is gone, but his letter should not be forgotten.

(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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Comments (1)

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My church almost gets it. Environmental destruction is wrong and sinful unless it is necessary and even better if it is temporary. Humanity in its innosence developed a fossil fuel economy that now threatens the garden of eden given to us at the...

My church almost gets it. Environmental destruction is wrong and sinful unless it is necessary and even better if it is temporary. Humanity in its innosence developed a fossil fuel economy that now threatens the garden of eden given to us at the end of the last ice age. If enough effort and God given intelligence is dedicated soon enough the destruction can be brought to an end. Some form off what is now called the Green New Deal can actually keep the oil in the ground and heal the environment. Greed and self destructive stupidity are the enemy. The Church by its very nature should heed the advice of Pope Frances and urge all its members to support and Perdue the transition to a low carbon economy. Waisting precious time,talent an treasure opposing tar sands annpipelines is simply attacking the economy that keeps the world and the church humming. God gave us our smarts. Let’s use them to realize that the green economy will allow the next ice age to develop and at that time we will need fossil fuels to fight the ice and maintain our garden of eden. (not a typist)

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