"Few people in this room can truly appreciate what this award means to the people of Alberta."
That was Alberta's Energy Minister Mel Knight speaking last night as he accepted an environmental award from the Aspen Institute. You'd think it was the year 2030, the world had gotten a leg up on climate change, and Alberta had played an instrumental role. Fade in the sentimental music, take out the handkerchiefs, cut to commercial.
No such miracle, alas. Instead, a large and disturbing dose of wishful thinking: an award given for an effort that has barely begun — Alberta's Carbon Capture and Storage Initiative — involving the largest and dirtiest energy project on the face of the Earth. The tar sands-supporting government of Alberta was being honored alongside true climate leaders Van Jones and A123 Systems for its supposed good intentions, which many environmental groups fear is merely a greenwashing campaign.
Environmentalists in the room cringed, but others at the forum must have appreciated that award as much as Alberta did – starting with the forum's corporate sponsors: Duke Energy, Shell Oil and General Motors.
CCS technology is several decades away from being useful on a industrial scale, but energy companies that rely on dirty fossil fuels such as coal and the tar sands are blowing smoke mirages of a future with CCS as an excuse to continuing their polluting ways unabated.
In Alberta's case, a coalition of U.S. and Canadian NGOs says the CCS plan is just an excuse to allow Shell and its peers futher expand their digging in the tar sands.
Alberta is grasping at straws to keep its tar sands plans alive as it faces increasing opposition to its tar sands projects on health, economic, justice and environmental grounds. Producing oil from the tar sands emits two to three times as much greenhouse gas as conventional oil production, and it destroys a significant carbon sink in the process — Canada's boreal forest.
So why would an environmental conference give a nod to its greenwashing?
The Aspen Institute says its aim is to stimulate dialogue by presenting all sides of the issues, including the tar sands. That strikes at least this attendee as irresponsible in the face of such an environmentally degrading process.
In my conversations with representatives of the institute, they are eager to point out the independent selection process of this award. But they need to recognize that their organization's name and its "environmenal" awards can be — and are already being — used as proof of good behavior by an industry with a horrendous track record.
Aspen Institute describes the awards as honoring the people and organizations "making the biggest strides, acting as leaders, catalysts, and educators, particularly at the critical nexus between energy and environmental problems and solutions from around the world." Of course Alberta is going to seize on that.
If we're to take the latest climate science seriously — that we need to get on a path that will get our CO2 levels back below 350 parts per million — then tar sands can't be part of our energy future.
A broad-based coalition has formed across borders to confront the threat, and it doesn't help when a fellow NGO tacitly honors this with an environmental award. The Aspen Institute should recognize that. Here's what Aspen Environment Forum Executive Director David Monsma said on the forum's web site:
"The choices we make in the next year — in the private sector, in the White House and Congress, and as individual consumers — are poised to change our lives in the years to come. That's why we need now, more than ever, to find ways to approach climate, energy, the economy together in cohesive policy. We are faced with critical challenges but also incredible opportunities. The Aspen Environment Forum will offer a complex and powerful look at the landscape here, offering up best ideas, hopefully some clear answers, and promising solutions — as well as big dreams for the future."
The few members of the advocacy community who had to witness an environmental award going to a dream as dirty as the tar sands can still safely say that ideas are advancing here in Aspen. We're presenting the other side of the story and pushing the envelope.