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The Syncrude oilsands plant, 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, is one of Alberta's booming oilsands operations. ((CBC))

The federal government has allowed Alberta's oilsands to become the "most destructive project on Earth" by failing to impose the required environmental restrictions, an environmental group says in a report released Friday in Ottawa.

"Canada's progress on global warming is being held hostage by the tarsands," the Environmental Defence report says, adding that the tarsands are "ground zero" for global warming because of the precedent they set for the rest of Canada.

"Because our federal political leaders refuse to put real caps on greenhouse gasses for the tarsands, they thereby refuse to put real caps for the rest of the industry in Canada."

But Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, campaigning for the provincial Conservatives in the oilsands city of Fort McMurray, said the "silk-suited environmentalists" from Toronto don't know the facts. "It's proven 99 per cent of the time that the air quality here in Fort McMurray is better than in most Canadian cities," he said. 

The Environmental Defence report says the oilsands negatively affect much of the country through polluted water and air in Alberta, acid rain in Saskatchewan and harmful emissions from refining in Ontario.

"There's nowhere else on Earth that we're talking about destroying an area the size of Florida," said Matt Price, program manager with Environmental Defence, at a news conference. "There is nowhere else on Earth where you have toxic ponds that are so big that you can now see them from space."

Both Price and the report blast the federal government for failing to pressure the industry to employ cleaner practices, such as carbon capturing and dry tailings.

"The federal government is not using laws already on the books to require companies to reduce emissions and clean up their toxic mess," Price said.

The group also says the government is not adequately enforcing existing regulations, for example the Fisheries Act, which prohibits the emission of harmful substances into fish-containing bodies of water.

"The Canadian government is turning a regulatory blind eye to the fact that the pollution enters the river not through direct discharge by tarsand operators, but indirectly through groundwater seepage, surface runoff and through wind carrying dirty sand into the river," the report said.

Environmental Defence also blasts what they call weak federal intensity targets that will allow the tarsands' greenhouse gas emissions to double by 2020, new pollutions measures that will allow the tarsands' volatile organic compound emissions to grow by 60 per cent by 2015 and the use of outside regulators to monitor environmental conditions.

Improve or close down, group says

Additionally, the report complains that the government defers to Alberta's provincial government on oilsands management because natural resources fall within provincial jurisdiction. The group argues environmental protection is a shared responsibility.

In order to improve, Environmental Defence says the government needs to enforce federal environmental regulations through independent monitoring and promote safer practices such as refinery upgrades and the use of dry tailings, which avoids the seepage into groundwater of the current wet method.

Other areas of proposed improvement include:

  • Passing stricter carbon caps.
  • Compensating for the loss of wildlife and ecosystems by creating new protected areas.
  • Giving First Nations communities control over tarsands operations and monitoring as well as financial benefits.

Government defends plan

"Should the government not move to require implementation of these measures to clean up the tarsands, then operations should be shut down," the report concludes.

Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette referred to the report during question period Friday in the House of Commons, using it as evidence "the Conservatives are turning their back on Kyoto."

The parliamentary secretary for the environment, Mark Warawa, defended the government's current environmental plan as "the toughest plan in Canadian history."

"All the major polluters … will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and that includes the oilsands," he said, adding that the plan requires absolute reductions of 20 per cent by 2020.