Oilsands a lesson for Ring of Fire – Column by Brian MacLeod – by Brian MacLeod (Sudbury Star – March 15, 2012)

The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

If you don’t put a priority on the environment, you can milk a province’s natural resources in good times, but it catches up with you. Alberta is a perfect example, though you’d never know that by Ontario’s Progressive Conservative MPP Randy Hillier’s comments.

In a column on the Calgary Herald’s website, Hillier vents about the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government’s excessive number of environmental regulations, which Hillier says has turned “a land of milk and honey into a land of mediocrity.”

He laments that the Ring of Fire chromite deposit in Northern Ontario remains undeveloped. “McGuinty has locked our resources away and they remain untouched. Rather than accepting the word of their beloved environmental advisers, McGuinty and his Liberal government should spend more time discovering Ontario for themselves.”

The oilsands are a major economic driver in Alberta. The province expects to bring in $184 billion in royalties over the next 25 years.

But what’s happening now shows the follies of developing the oilsands so quickly. (Even Alberta’s revered former premier Peter Lougheed says the province is moving too swiftly.)

Alberta is seeking a massive expansion of the oilsands — an expansion that is dependent on the ability to move bitumen through the Keystone XL pipeline to Texas and the Northern Gateway pipeline to the British Columbia coast.

But environmental issues have caught up with the pipeline proponents. Increased greenhouse emissions, massive disruption of land, contaminated rivers, air pollution and habitat disturbance are attracting worldwide attention.

U.S. President Barack Obama postponed construction of Keystone XL because of environmental opposition. Hearings on the Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast will drag on an extra year. The oilsands barely escaped an EU sanction that would have made fuel derived from the oilsands more expensive. Reports prepared by Environment Canada last year warned that the industry’s economic future may be in jeopardy due to a lack of “credible scientific information” available to fend off environmental opposition.

Well done, Alberta.

The oilsands went into production in 1967. The full scale of the economic opportunities of the Ring of Fire — an estimated $1 trillion — have only been apparent since about 2007. Since it typically takes about 10 years to build a mine after its discovery, a production timeline of 2015 by the first company expected to operate there is actually advanced.

The Ring of Fire is being developed in a time of unprecedented sensitivities for environmental and First Nations concerns, which have caught the attention of the United Nations and a few movie stars, to boot. The whole world is watching and when it does, it can be a serious problem, as Alberta is finding out.

Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci, whose ministry is spearheading development in the Ring of Fire, says Ontario is still the first choice of industry for investment in mining. The province drew $1 billion in exploration for the first time in 2011 and the value of mineral production was $11 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2003 — both No. 1 in Canada.

There is no advantage for the Liberals in delaying development of the Ring of Fire. Even economist Don Drummond urged the province to take full advantage of the deposit. But, says Bartolucci, the province will proceed “methodically,” working with private companies and First Nations and addressing environmental issues.

The Ring of Fire can’t be developed in the same fashion as the oilsands. And even if it could be, it wouldn’t be wise.

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