Alta. too hands-off on energy approvals

Many Albertans get prickly at the prospect of oilsands bitumen flowing to the U.S. for refining. And rightly so -- for how can the province make most of its finite resource if low-priced bitumen and high priced refinery jobs go south? Last fall, Ed Stelmach raised exactly that concern when two major exporters, BP and Encana, announced plans for two large-scale export projects. Stelmach likened bitumen exports to selling off topsoil, clearly a bad idea.

As it turns out, more than a dozen U.S. refineries want to gear up to accept bitumen.

Some forecasts say 1.5 million barrels a day will be going south by 2020 -- more than today's entire oilsands production of 1.25 million barrels a day. About one-third of the bitumen produced today is exported.

The crucial first steps to implement in this export strategy are already being taken. This month, the National Energy Board started hearings into the $2.1-billion Keystone pipeline proposed by TransCanada Pipelines to carry around 435,000 barrels of bitumen a day to Illinois and Oklahoma.

Enbridge is also putting together a pipeline proposal, the Alberta Clipper, for U.S.-bound bitumen.

Approval of a new export pipeline is an irrevocable decision about the use of Alberta's oil reserves, and there's been no opportunity for a public discussion about what's at stake for the province.

The proposed bitumen exports, for instance, are already creating thousands of jobs in Texas to renovate aging refineries, for instance. What other opportunities will flow south? A group of Alberta labour unions is trying to raise that red flag at the NEB hearings. The Alberta Federation of Labour says 18,000 upgrading and refining jobs will be lost if the pipeline is approved, as well as the opportunity to build a more diversified economy.

AFL president Gil McGowan asked the NEB to delay its approval until Albertans and policy makers have a chance to address those issues in a public forum. Because once the pipes are in the ground and the billions invested in re-tooling U.S. refineries, there's no turning back. Alberta and Canada will be tied into the "limited role of miner and extractor." "We're at a crossroads and decisions we make now will affect Alberta and Canada for generations to come. We can't afford to get it wrong," said McGowan in an interview.

"I was asked at the hearing what is the right proportion for export and I said that's what the public should be discussing. These are the resources they own collectively." "The public should be setting the course, not just narrow interests of the big industrial players." The NEB sent a message earlier this year that it does not want to consider the labour federation's concerns: "these are matters of broad public policy that are properly under the purview of federal and provincial government," it said in a February report.

Albertans have heard the NEB refrain before. The Alberta Energy and Utilities Board last fall declined to consider Ft. McMurray's request to delay approval of the three giant projects on the same grounds.

Municipal problems coping with boom are not an EUB responsibility.

That's correct, strictly speaking. But in this deregulated environment, Alberta has no public forum for raising these issues around energy projects. There's no discussion of what's an appropriate target for domestic upgrading nor a policy to promote refining in Western Canada, for instance.

Alberta Energy Minister Mel Knight, like his boss, has backed off earlier concerns about selling off the topsoil. Large-scale exports have the advantage of creating a bigger demand for bitumen, says the department. That will help raise the price (about one-third to half of the price of oil) and that in turn means higher royalties.

The Alberta government is content to delegate these difficult decisions to regulatory agencies, or the market. If a proposal for a nuclear power project came forward, would that too be delegated to the EUB? Or how about the issue of water exports? But elected representatives should remind themselves that delegating these tough decisions doesn't make the MLAs less accountable for the impact of these decisions and the direction they take this province.

Edmonton Journal, Tues June 12 2007, Page A16


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