Sarnia industry wants feds to take a lead in oil sands development; protesters want it stopped

“There are times when governments have to give industry a helping push.”

That according to former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, during a Sarnia conference aimed at making sure Sarnia-Lambton and the rest of Canada gets a piece of the economic pie from the oil sands development.

The Bitumen: Added Value conference has drawn about 150 industry leaders from Sarnia-Lambton, Ontario and Alberta to talk about how the country can not only pull the thick bitumen from the ground and export it to the US but to refine it here, bringing more jobs to Canada. “Theoretically, we could lead the world in growth if we could just get this off the launch pad,” McKenna told the group.

McKenna says the TD Bank Group, of which he is the deputy chair, estimates Canada is losing between $25 and $30 billion each year by failing to upgrade the bitumen in this country.

McKenna says the federal government has to get behind the industry and offer financial help to make refinery projects feasible.

Clem Bowman, founder of the Bowman Center for Technology Commercialization, agrees. He says Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in 2006 that Canada would be an Energy Superpower. But he says the federal government needs to inject cash into the industry just as governments in the past supported visionary projects like the St. Lawrence Seaway and the national railway.

“The risk is high for visionaries to take,” says Bowman adding the politics of that risk is part of the reason the federal government has yet to provide support to build upgrading facilities. “Someone has to put up some upfront money at the start.”

And while the two-day conference is meant to convince leaders to urge the federal and provincial governments to take action, industry leaders know there are people who don’t like the idea.

About 75 protestors walked from Sarnia City Hall and could be heard outside the conference hall in Point Edward chanting anti-oil sands slogans. Some even banged on the conference room windows. Inside, a lone protester, Vanessa Gray, of ASAP – Aamjiwnaang and Sarnia Against Pipeline – stood on the stage with a banner protesting the development of the oil sands calling it “environmental racism.”

McKenna says the oil sands developers didn’t do themselves any favours in the beginning but says there are now over 1,000 researchers trying to find ways to make the oil sand’s development more environmentally friendly. “I’d like us to keep ramping up the fund to create much cleaner projects so that when we go to the world, (what we’re saying) is not just hype…There is a dramatic escalation in technology which is lowering the footprint for the use of water in these projects.

The protests delayed the conference for a few minutes, but the protestors left peacefully.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.