Jamie Ellerton Headshot

If Justin Trudeau Likes The Oil Sands, Why Can't You?

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Though certain anti-oil lobby groups make it seem like there are profound divisions in this country over the oil sands, the truth is that, historically, the responsible development of Canada's oil sands have been championed by both liberal and conservative governments. In fact, it's the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien, who deserve much of the credit for recognizing early the potential of the resource, and ensuring that government policies didn't impede the private sector development of the oil sands. The current Conservative government has only maintained the vision for the oil sands that the Liberals first hatched.

Liberals, as distant as they are right now from their old majority government days, still take the Canadian economy seriously. They are, of course, a party that plans -- and not necessarily unreasonably -- to govern this country again at some point. So it's worth noting that the man many expect to soon be leading the party is standing up for the oil sands.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau hasn't said yet whether he'll run for the leadership of his party. Polls suggest he's the favourite among other putative candidates: In June, an Ipsos-Reid survey gave him nearly twice as much support as the next most popular name, Bob Rae (who has since suggested he will not run, anyway).

And as befits a serious Liberal leadership contender, Trudeau is standing up for the oil sands.

"It's an important driver of the economy and we have to respect it," he told the Calgary Sun on his recent visit to the city for the stampede. He's informed enough on the subject to point out that 40 per cent of the jobs created by the oil sands industry are actually outside the province of Alberta, a testament to the national value of the resource.

His comments could hardly be called unbridled boosterism: He said he was concerned about the environmental impact and the "devastation of the land" that he believed was an issue. It's important, he said, to "make sure we're doing it right."

No one could disagree with that last part: Oil sands companies work every day to mitigate their environmental impact. They've lowered their emissions per barrel by roughly a third. They recycle nearly all the water they use, and the little proportion of water they do take is typically drawn from underground saline aquifers that are unfit for much else. They spend millions of dollars a year to protect ducks. They do disturb land, it's true. But they're also bound by law, and covenant, to reclaim it: To return it the way it was found. Whatever might appear "devastated" is temporary; it will inevitably be made its old self again.

Whether Trudeau thinks that's enough, or not, he has yet to make that clear (even producers themselves aim higher each day). But whatever his satisfaction level with the incredible environmental protection efforts now employed in the oil sands, his overall point is what matters: That the oil sands are critical for Canada and that they must be developed responsibly.

This is where the overwhelming majority of Canadians find common ground. The question of whether oil sands companies are doing quite enough to protect the environment is actually a matter of minute degrees: Some say yes. Some say not yet, but accept it as fully possible. Almost no one -- save the fringe, often foreign-backed environmental radicals -- believe the entire project should be stopped cold.

Once we acknowledge that virtually all of us agree that the oil sands are vital to Canada, we recognize the absurdity of claims that this is in any way a nationally divisive issue. Trudeau, as an opposition member, would no doubt claim his Conservative rivals should be doing more to incentivize faster environmental mitigation in the oil sands. But he, like the Conservatives, knows that developing the oil sands is the only choice for Canada.

This is realism: Canada has an incredibly valuable resource and it can, and will, and should be developed as fully -- and cleanly -- as possible. Some fringe elements will continue to refuse to accept reality. Good for Justin Trudeau for sticking to it, and ignoring them. Whether he's the right leader for the Liberals or the country remains to be seen. But at the very least, when it comes to understanding the importance of the oil sands, he's shown he has sense.