A Conflicted Interest

Opinion by Holly Moeller
July 10, 2014, 5:26 p.m.

VANCOUVER, B.C.: I have been fortunate to live in many places, but none have ever felt like “home” in the way the Pacific Northwest does. It has the gray skies and rainy days that soothe my sun-scorched eyes, perfect vistas of tree-lined shores backed by snow-tipped mountains and long summer days that linger into early-morning twilights.

So spending five days in Vancouver is like spending five days in my personal paradise. Over the course of the trip, my joy was marred by only one thing: the public image campaign of Alberta’s oil producers.

It’s no wonder that a band of energy giants has pooled its members’ resources to embark on a major PR effort. The Canadian “tar sands” are infamous for the environmental consequences associated with mining them. Extracting the crude bitumen in the first place requires (and pollutes) millions of gallons of heated water. Running the heavy machinery associated with the mining requires lots of pre-existing fossil fuel energy (and therefore emits more greenhouse gases than other forms of fossil fuel mining). And Alberta bitumen is notoriously hazardous to transport, causing fiery derailments across North America.

“Dirty” as Alberta’s oil sands are, they’re an economic boon to the energy sector that makes up 22 percent of the province’s gross domestic product. The sector also employs 121,000 Albertans and provides a relatively steady source of economic growth in a volatile global economy.

But Canadians also inhabit northerly latitudes that see some of the most dramatic effects of climate change first. In my (conversational) experience, they tend to be acutely aware of shifts in temperature, snowfall and ice melt that they have witnessed in their own lifetimes. And they recognize the well-established scientific link between these changes and the burning of the fossil fuels produced from their own lands.

Across the continent, Alberta’s fossil fuel boom is mirrored in Newfoundland and Labrador. One year ago, a taxi driver in St. John’s, Newfoundland, pointed out a half-dozen new buildings that had popped up to support oil drilling in the adjacent Labrador. Since he’d just mentioned shorter winters and faster thaws of the city’s impressive harbor, I asked him how he felt about the province’s increasing reliance on an energy extraction economy.

“Well, it’s not great,” he said, in the thick and peculiar Newfoundland accent I came to adore during my time there. “But we were hurting economically before. And now my son has a job.”

It’s a double-edged sword. That seems to be a commonly held opinion among our neighbors to the north. Certainly, there are many – like a strikingly handsome young man I once met in the airport on his way from schooling in Hawaii to an engineering job in Alberta – who embrace the opportunity without looking back. And there are just as many others – including many professional acquaintances working in the environmental sciences – who would much prefer to leave the oil in the ground.

The economic incentives are undeniable, and as fossil fuel deposits in other parts of the world are exhausted, those incentives keep getting better.

Yet the environmental consequences are hitting ever closer to home. Although the effects of “greener choices” on our bank accounts may feel much more immediate right now, that’s starting to change as we increasingly attribute unfavorable weather patterns to shifts in the climate.

Unfortunately, we can’t afford to wait until the effects of climate change are translated into our financial system – whether through the legislation of taxes and regulatory fees, rising insurance premiums or expensive crop failures. By the time these costs outweigh the value of fossil fuel use, it will be too late to avoid a suite of threats to human life on the planet. (Of course, some changes are already irreversibly under way.)

Instead, timely change will come from people who are willing to weigh financial incentives against sustainability and environmental ethics in the common currency of their personal values. When we, as a society, internalize the long-term consequences of our actions and decide that the consequences shouldn’t have to be borne by our children, we will be ready for change.

Let’s just hope that comes quickly enough.


Contact Holly Moeller at [email protected].

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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