EDMONTON - An industry-funded program that offers high school teachers a six-day trip to Fort McMurray to "experience Alberta's oilsands" is being expanded across the country.
While the operators of Inside Education say they work hard to ensure their programming offers plenty of balance, others say informing educators about controversial developments shouldn't be left to those with most to gain from them.
"It's always billed as being free, but what's being sold is a positive image of an industry that's controversial," said Andrew Hodgkins, a University of Alberta researcher who has published on the issue of corporate involvement in education.
Inside Education, a non-profit charity backed by Alberta's corporate A-list, is offering selected teachers an all-expense-paid trip to Fort McMurray this summer to get a first-hand look at the huge developments powering both Canada's economy and many of its public debates.
The successful applicants will tour both open-pit mines and in-situ developments. They'll meet with various company officials and researchers working on oilsands operations. Meetings are planned with local First Nations and environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute, said Inside Education director Steve McIsaac.
Inside Education is "providing background to these teachers so they can take a balanced look back to their communities," he said. "It's kind of a train-the-trainer kind of approach."
Inside Education has been around since 1985, formed by government, industry, education and non-profit representatives. It was originally called Friends of Environmental Education Society of Alberta.
The group has offered oilsands programs for years and about 200 Alberta teachers have taken advantage of it. This is the first year it's being offered to teachers outside the province.
McIsaac is aware of the suspicion likely to accrue to industry-funded educational programs. Inside Education faces it head-on.
"The very first thing we do is we let our teachers know this is where the support came from," he said. "It's right up front.
"Nobody has veto powers over our programs. We provide a platform for as many different perspectives as we possibly can, and that's increasingly difficult."
Still, said Hodgkins, the overall tenor of the program is likely to be positive.
"They're selling an ideology," he said. "These tours are very technocratic — 'If there's a problem, we've got the technology to fix that problem.'
"What it precludes is critical questioning: Should we be mining? Where are the profits going?"
The researchers the teachers meet, for example, are more likely to be engineers than biologists. A spokesperson for the Pembina Institute confirmed its staffers have occasionally addressed Inside Education audiences, but are not otherwise involved in the program.
Teachers in the program are also offered curriculum materials developed by Inside Education to take back to their classrooms. Because the use of third-party materials is not tracked and is left up to individual teachers, there's no way of knowing how popular they are.
Inside Education's programs certainly are.
McIsaac said 100 teachers applied for 20 spots in last fall's program on oilsands innovations. Inside Education's website offers testimonials from grateful participants.
"Our oilsands programs are in high demand from teachers," McIsaac said.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with industry involvement in environmental education, said Hodgkins. They just shouldn't be the only ones doing it.
His research suggests that Ontario's school curriculum has more oilsands-related content than Alberta's.
"Governments don't want to fund environmental education in schools," he said. "When industry is funding education, you're never going to get the whole picture."
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.