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Why we need the oil sands

The world's biggest environmental threat isn't the bloodthirsty Japanese whaling campaign. It isn't the shark finning that puts tasteless soup before patrons at Chinese restaurants.

The world's biggest environmental threat isn't the bloodthirsty Japanese whaling campaign. It isn't the shark finning that puts tasteless soup before patrons at Chinese restaurants. It isn't even mountain-top mining, which has flattened landscapes in Kentucky and West Virginia.

No, friends, the biggest threat to a new treaty at this week's Copenhagen conference is Canada's devious oil sands, as George Monbiot tells us.

After intense lobbying by Canadian friends, author and activist Monbiot wrote a scathing piece that equated Alberta's oil sands with Japanese whaling. He charges that Canada is turning into a bullish "petro-state" at the hands of careless cowboys who fire pistols in the air as they dance to house remixes of "Drill, Baby, Drill!"

I give Monbiot credit for one thing - no one's ever compared us to the Japanese. Everything else about his rant is bunk.

So okay, he tells us the obvious. The oil sands are bad. They're stripping away lands in Northern Alberta and will soon produce more greenhouse gases than Denmark. Every day they're raising Canada's per capita emissions - not a tough thing to do in a country of 34 million people.

Fine, I get it. So what in Gaia's name do we do about it?

Well... Monbiot doesn't know. Or at least he doesn't say in this particular piece. He's so wrapped up with slamming the Great White North just prior to the Copenhagen conference that he doesn't have space to offer a solution.

He's not alone in that - most times when you hear someone slamming the oil sands they say it's time to take action. But what precise action they want, they generally cannot tell you. And that's unfortunate, because demand for oil is not going to magically stop.

Let's take a quick look at how important the oil sands really are.

Look for a second at figures gathered by the Canadian Energy Research Institute, a Calgary-based non-profit that analyzes energy economics. In 2008 Canada received around 1.8 million barrels of oil per day. Fifty-two per cent of that came domestically and about 98 per cent of that source came from the oil sands.

Canada's next biggest source of oil is from the North Sea, a dwindling stock that supplied us with 263,981.82 barrels that year - 15 per cent of our total. Algeria came next at 11 per cent, followed by Norway, the UK and Angola.

I could list numbers ad nauseum but the point remains the same - Canada needs oil and it has to come from somewhere.

Without the sands we're out almost 950,000 barrels a day if our consumption stays at 2008 levels. If we didn't keep developing the sands we'd simply get the oil from somewhere else.

That leaves us turning to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya, countries abundant in oil that are reviled worldwide for their human rights abuses. And that's without mentioning the oil that other countries would need if they didn't have Canada to depend on.

No one is disputing the environmental impacts of extracting oil from the sands. Least of all the oil companies themselves, who are competing with each other to develop more efficient practices. Companies now require half as much temperature to heat bitumen out of sand as they used to and even Elizabeth May has recognized oil company Syncrude's efforts to improve energy use.

Alberta's oil, it seems, is some of the most liberal oil you can find.

All of these are things that Monbiot ignores. He's content to castigate Alberta's oil barons as a cabal of resource-rich hillbillies exploiting Mother Earth with no view to the consequences.

His contempt for the province is matched only by his profound ignorance of economics. He says Canada does not depend solely on profits from the oil sands. That may be true but it ignores the fact they generate $307 billion in tax revenue - money that can go to governments for services like health care, education and employment insurance.

Any way you look at it, the oil sands form a key part of Canada's economic and social fabric. To rant against them without providing an alternative is a deliberate waste of everyone's time. Canada's government is right to defend and protect them.

We're done creating awareness. It's time for idealists like Monbiot to give us an alternative because I don't much like the ones we have.