OTTAWA - Canada should consider reining in development of its booming oil sands, the world's second largest reserve behind Saudi Arabia, Alberta's new energy minister said in an interview published Friday.
"I believe we have an opportunity to sit down as a cabinet and have that discussion and say, 'As this thing starts to crank up again, are we going to change our policy of come one, come all into the development of the oil sands?" Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert told the daily Globe and Mail.
"That's the discussion we need to have," he said, offering no details.
Environmentalists immediately praised the minister for at least talking about the need to slow the pace and scale of the development, often criticized for polluting the environment and contributing to global warming.
Such a move would have "the potential to address some of the environmental and social problems, and the negative attention the oil sands are getting," said activist Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute.
Liepert warned of a reluctance to slow development by oil men who he said "epitomize the Wild West" and "who believe the government has no role to play" in managing economic growth.
During Alberta's boom years, it would have been difficult to tell any firm "we've got a new policy in place, you've got to wait your turn three years" to develop a patch of the oil sands, he said.
But the current lull in the oil sector could allow for a reassessment of the situation to calm what critics described as overheated growth in exploitation of the oil sands, he added.
Alberta's oil sands output is currently expected by the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board to triple over the coming decade, making Canada one of the biggest energy producers in the world by then.
At an estimated 175 billion barrels, the oil sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world, but they were neglected for years, except by local companies, due to high extraction costs.
Since 2000, skyrocketing crude oil prices and improved extraction methods have made exploitation more economical.
At the same time, oil companies faced increased protests for creating toxic waste ponds so large they are visible from space and that seep into Alberta groundwater.
Environmentalists also criticized oil sands extraction for producing three to five times more carbon emissions than conventional oil production.
While conventional crude oil is pumped from the ground, oil sands must be mined and bitumen separated from the sand and water, then upgraded and refined.