What would Jesus do about the oil sands? Church leaders prepare for May visit

A delegation of church leaders is preparing to explore the theological significance of the oil sands in a trip to northern Alberta from May 21 to 27. The 17-member delegation, including Aboriginal and Global South partners, will visit excavation sites and communities to listen to those connected to the industry. The event is coordinated by KAIROS, the social justice coalition of 11 Canadian churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada.

The listening starts at the beginning of April when Archbishop Tom Morgan, the delegation’s Canadian Anglican representative and retired bishop of Saskatoon, drives to Alberta for a preliminary “listening tour” with Henriette Thompson, director of Partnerships, Anglican Church of Canada, and KAIROS board member.

“None of us have all the answers,” said Archbishop Morgan. “I want to listen honestly to everyone who has some investment in the future of the tar sands, Alberta, and the environment.” He and Ms. Thompson will meet with oil patch workers, local church leaders, and others.

There will be much to listen to. As the biggest oil reserves outside the Middle East, the Alberta oil sands hold an estimated 173 billion barrels of tar-like bitumen, which is refined into oil. Over the past several years of development, northern Albertan communities such as Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan have seen enormous changes, including an influx of migrant labourers, inflated cost of living, and large-scale environmental damage.

Nationally, the oil sands are a powerful economic engine and Canada’s largest contributor to overall growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Although the recent recession has slowed development, much national debate has focused on how to resuscitate the industry.

Church leaders want to weigh in on what all of this means. “The tar sands are a matter of such magnitude,” said Ms. Thompson. “Their impact extends to the environment, the economy (in terms of jobs and trade), political and social matters (including land rights of Indigenous peoples, as well as being global, national and local in scope. The churches have an opportunity to contribute to the way forward by drawing from biblical, theological and ethical sources. This is the response that this issue requires.”

This isn’t the first time that Canadian churches have spoken up about national energy issues. During the oil crises of the 1970s, ecumenical groups urged the government to consider the ethics of Canada’s energy choices. Recently, Saskatchewan faith leaders issued a statement urging caution on expanding the uranium industry. Advocacy on energy topics also continues through KAIROS, which is in the middle of an alternative energy campaign called “Re-energize: Time for a Carbon Sabbath.

“The future of energy is a very difficult question for North America,” said Archbishop Morgan. “I hope the church would engage in a quest for the way forward which would be sufficiently humble to listen to all concerned before it speaks too loudly.”

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