Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Oil sands PR blitz anything but balanced

It's official: the unabashed oil sands PR blitz is in full swing. It's image, not impacts that industry is addressing, and that's a problem.

CAPP, along with nine other industry associations has launched "Alberta is Energy," a campaign complete with town hall meetings, a website and a media plan to sell oil and gas. Two recently uploaded YouTube videos highlight key messaging about the oil sands industry - that it's a clean, green, money-making machine.

But wait: don't drink the Kool-Aid yet because the video's "balanced perspective" is not-so-balanced. Some of the most important issues to stakeholders are downplayed, misrepresented or ignored altogether. Let's set the record straight.

On oil sands reclamation

The claim that, "in the future, all oil sands development will be reclaimed" is more than a little optimistic given industry's track record. Of the 600 square kilometres of land disturbed by oil sands mining operations, only 1.04 square kilometres is government certified as reclaimed. Calculations of financial securities to cover the cost of reclamation are not publicly available, inadequate and place Albertans and Canadians at risk of bearing the liability of costly clean up in the future.

On tailings "ponds" and wildlife

We hear about the shortened time it now takes to reclaim a tailings "pond" in the video. Unfortunately, this is not representative of industry's failure to address tailings clean up. In fact, we found only two companies have submitted plans in accordance with Directive 074: Tailings Performance Criteria and Requirements for Oil Sands Mining Schemes, suggesting those two companies may begin to manage tailings.

Tailings lakes cover more than 130 square kilometres - an area larger than Vancouver and set to grow further with liquid tailings rapidly expanding by 200 million litres every day. And they aren't wildlife-friendly, killing over 1,600 ducks in one incident in 2008. Recent data unearthed through a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request (so much for transparency) shows oil sands development killing 27 black bears, 67 deer, 31 red foxes, 21 coyotes and other animals between 2000 and 2008 (and that's only industry reported deaths from Syncrude, Suncor and Shell Canada's Albian Sands). 

As for leakage, we still don't know how much tailings lakes are leaking, as neither government nor industry will publish the data. One analysis puts it at 11 million litres a day.

On regulations

We're not sure we'd call the oil sands industry "one of the most highly regulated." As of June 2009, about 60% of the total oil sands area has been leased to companies for extraction. That's 84,000 square kilometres of land leased by the Alberta government prior to land-use planning and without environmental assessment. And media reports on the government's own scorecard for management of the oil sands last week showed only two (short-term) out of the 21 goals of Alberta's much delayed plan, Responsible Actions, are complete.

On water use

Ungluing the bitumen from the sands is a water-consuming process, using two barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen from mining and one barrel of water per barrel of bitumen from in situ production. While water recycling is commendable and increases efficiencies, it doesn't return water to the natural cycle and large withdrawals are still made. According to the awarded water licenses, current and proposed projects could withdraw more than 15% of the Athabasca River's water flow during its lowest flow periods and industry continues to resist halting withdrawals during low flow periods. 


On greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production are not decreasing in real terms and certainly not by 30% as claimed. Rather, the oil sands are Canada's fastest growing source of emissions. That's because oil sands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be three to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as conventional crude production from North America. And the video neglects to mention that Canada still doesn't have regulations to reduce greenhouse gases.

On stakeholder relations

It would be hard to imagine the oil sands industry is "cultivating effective, productive relationships with all stakeholders" as asserted in the video. Numerous First Nations have launched legal challenges to fight the way oil sands development is proceeding within their territories. One such battle is heating up in the Supreme Court with Chief Don Testawich of the Duncan's First Nation near Peace River saying, "our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oilsands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects."

The oil sands industry has undeniable and ever-growing impacts that need to be addressed. Mounting continued PR campaigns that talk at Albertans and Canadians won't change those impacts. We'd like to suggest an alternate first step: admit there are problems. Next step: fix them.

Government of Alberta — Apr 16, 2010 - 10:31 AM MT

Branto, I admit being somewhat puzzled by the emphasis put on oil sands GHG emissions – the current emissions - in discussions about the environmental impacts of the industry. A lot of work is directed at reducing those emissions and has shown results that I have not seen in other energy sectors, ie: 33% lower emissions per barrel since 1990. But that’s an aside. The GHG issue around oil sands is the about the future growth in emissions, and how to limit it. That’s why I am puzzled by the focus on the current emissions (about 40Mt) and their impact on climate change. In the relevant period (Kyoto) my read is that Canada’s transportation emissions grew far more than did oil sands emissions. (“Emissions from Road Transportation rose by 38Mt between 1990 and 2007” – National Inventory Report, Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks, Environment Canada). And overall, Canada’s growth in emissions (155Mt, to a total now of 747Mt) is far, far greater than the entire total of oil sands emissions (the aforementioned 40Mt, not just oil sands emissions growth). So, though I am not the brightest guy in the world, I don’t get how it is oil sands that prevents Canada from reaching its targets, as you suggest. I don’t get how oil sands is the “sector” that is Canada’s largest emitter, as is so often suggested, when other “sectors” – let’s say, Agriculture, with 60Mt – are clearly larger. Perhaps I am wrong, I’ll welcome your correction. – David Sands

Branto — Apr 16, 2010 - 10:58 AM MT

@ GOA: Compare apples to apples. Emissions from transit grew 36% 1990-2008 while emissions from Oil and Gas extraction grew 285%. And transit is now trending down with -.5% growth in emissions '07 to '08. Compare that to an increase of 2.9% from oil and gas (http://bit.ly/bTVZ1L). And that was during a downturn! NEB expects tar sands oil production to jump 11% this year (http://is.gd/bp7jW) and you can bet emissions will too.

Government of Alberta — Apr 16, 2010 - 12:18 PM MT

Don’t quantify something using its number when you can use a derivative of its number? I’m no actuary, but I respectfully suggest that may not be the more precise approach. By the way, it says here http://tinyurl.com/cr8pyl the internet is the world’s fastest growing source of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. And here you can see that growth quantified in percentage: http://tinyurl.com/yapwbc6 (10% annually). I have provided the adjective (fastest) and the percentage (10% per annum) so you don’t need to click on the links and accelerate this horrifying emissions growth. - David Sands

Branto — Apr 16, 2010 - 01:49 PM MT

Okay, so from '07-'08 transit shed 1088 kt CO2 while Oil and Gas grew by 662. What's your point? Mine is that emissions from tar sands, unlike transit, are growing (and fast). So it's tar sands not transit that's killed Canada's Kyoto commitments. You don't seem to have a rebuttal.

Government of Alberta — Apr 16, 2010 - 03:01 PM MT

No. If you insist that oil sands emissions (40Mt) caused Canada's emissions to rise by 155Mt, I can't rebutt that. Not at all. I should know better than to tangle with you by now. Have a wonderful weekend, say hi to San Francisco for me.

Branto — Apr 15, 2010 - 06:16 PM MT

@GOA for a start: how about the problem of absolute CO2 emissions growth from tar sands derailing Canada's climate commitments?

Government of Alberta — Apr 15, 2010 - 02:26 PM MT

Sorry, Simon to be clear I was not suggesting a summit meeting with the Premier and Ministers; such is well beyond my purview. My apprently poorly expressed wish is far more modest; I was hoping for more challenging conversations in forums like this. However, I will draw your reply to the attention of my more effective colleagues. - David Sands

k.w.m — Apr 15, 2010 - 09:40 AM MT

And here I always thought Alberta was a people province not a corporate province.

Simon Dyer — Apr 15, 2010 - 08:12 AM MT

David, Thanks for your quick response and for inviting a productive conversation. Indeed, let’s have it. We are very interested in meeting with the Premier and/or the Ministers of Energy and Environment. Over the past year, we have requested meetings with former Energy Minister Mel Knight, current Energy Minister Ron Liepert and Premier Stelmach. We want to meet to discuss solutions, but so far there has not been an expression of interest to meet with us at this level. We are interested in working collaboratively towards solutions. We were involved in the Government of Alberta’s Oil Sands Multistakeholder Committee consultation with Albertans. We also provided formal submissions on multiple topics during that consultation process (http://www.oilsandswatch.org/pub/1296). As well, we released a blueprint for responsible oil sands development (http://www.oilsandswatch.org/media-release/1405). Through the government’s Secretariat, a plan for the oil sands was developed (http://www.treasuryboard.alberta.ca/ResponsibleActions.cfm). The problem is, it’s not being executed. So far, only two goals have been achieved (http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/Tories+failing+oilsands+report+card/2767401.story.html). Our recent in situ report card (http://www.oilsandswatch.org/pub/1981) evaluated the performance of in situ operators and recommended that government require industry provide more environmental disclosure, use the best technologies available and alter its approval process to consider the cumulative effects of projects. In response, Suncor spokeswoman Sneh Seetal said the Pembina report is “a good example of an NGO (non-governmental organization) offering suggestions and solutions.” Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith said: “With this report the Pembina Institute has brought forward some practical, reasonable and achievable goals that can help industry and our environment. This type of approach is an excellent example of industry and stakeholders working together to measure performance and continuously improve.” In contrast, Energy Minister Liepert, after acknowledging he hadn’t read the report, responded saying: “We don’t need more regulations. We have plenty of regulations in place to ensure that environmentally, we are protecting Albertans.” Our work is aimed at advancing sustainable energy solutions in a productive way, working in collaboration with industry, First Nations and government. We look forward to the Government of Alberta creating the time and space to meet with us to find appropriate solutions. Respectfully, Simon Dyer

TOMCOGroupEditor — Apr 14, 2010 - 08:36 AM MT

My opinion, and maybe I'm wrong here, but I thought the idea behind Alberta is Energy was to present a balanced view of the oilsands by informing people of the PRO side for a change. Much of the mainstream media and most environmentalists are already quite willing and happy to expose the "dirty underbelly" of the oilsands industry (while still reaping it's benefits I might ad). When was the last time environmentalists made a big deal about positive advancements being made in the oilsands, or in any area of the oil and gas industry? Yet the imagery of tailings ponds is being splattered across the media with wild abandon. I personally welcome the views expressed by Alberta is Energy. It's high time everyone started looking on the positive side of what we can achieve together. As for the environmental impacts, yes they are important, but what are we the consumer willing to do to help make it better (besides complaining)? - T. L'Heureux, from TOMCO Group of Companies

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