Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Want to Clean up Alberta's Reputation? Clean up the Oil Sands

Published in The Lethbridge Herald (May 23, 2008)*

By Dan Woynillowicz, Director, Strategy and External Relations, Pembina Institute, Simon Dyer, Director, Oil Sands, Pembina Institute

Amidst increasing global scrutiny, the Government of Alberta has launched a three year, 25 million dollar public relations campaign to improve Alberta's flagging environmental image and counter its growing reputation as a producer of "dirty oil."

Premier Stelmach and his Deputy, Ron Stevens, are taking this "not dirty oil" campaign from Washington, DC to California to Western Europe. Unfortunately, it's quite likely to backfire and end up further diminishing our global standing. Why? It's simple: the facts aren't on Alberta's side.

On the same day that Deputy Premier Stevens was touting Alberta's environmental stewardship in the oil sands to American lawmakers in Washington, DC, 500 ducks were dead or dying after inadvertently landing on one of Syncrude's toxic tailings ponds.

Whether from strip-mining up to 3,000 square kilometres of northern boreal forest or drilling to extract bitumen in an area of Alberta potentially as large as Florida, the environmental impacts of oil sands production are unique in intensity and scale. Oil sands production is a voracious consumer of energy, resulting in up to five times more greenhouse gas pollution per barrel than conventional oil. Oil sands operations consume and contaminate large volumes of water that have already accumulated in toxic tailings ponds that cover 50 square kilometres. Reclamation of open-pit mines, and especially the toxic tailings ponds, remains a daunting and unproven experiment. Threatened Woodland caribou populations are declining as a result of the web of wellpads, roads and pipelines created by "in situ" oil sands drilling operations.

With little or no understanding of cumulative impacts, and weak or non-existent protections for Alberta's air, land and water in place, Alberta is exposing an area of the province as large as some U.S. states to potentially unprecedented environmental impacts.

These facts lead to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that, relatively speaking, synthetic crude from the oil sands is "dirty oil."

The damage that has already occurred as production has grown to more than one million barrels per day is enough to shock the world. Efforts by the industry to reduce environmental impacts have lagged in comparison to growth in output, and so the situation is actually getting worse, not better. Overcoming this gap will require the use of breakthrough technologies that eliminate greenhouse gas pollution and toxic tailings, reduce or eliminate water requirements, and drastically accelerate reclamation back to boreal forest. Until it demands these changes, Alberta's haste to expand oil sands production will validate and further entrench the world's diminished view of the province.

The government's new oil sands environmental management division - announced last year to much fanfare - was supposed to take action, but instead it is largely missing in action. Their only product to date is a glossy oil sands report that relies upon the selective use of facts and a healthy dose of rhetoric promising improvements in the distant future - such as greenhouse gas reductions 40 years from now. Even in the absence of real solutions, the report arrives at the dubious conclusion that everything is just fine. Mysteriously, the slick brochure does not include a single picture of an oil sands mine - despite the government's plans to dig up an area almost five times larger than the City of Calgary for oil sands mining operations.

When confronted with the prospect of taking real action, the Alberta government's standard practice is to shrink away, commission another expert panel to conduct further study, and maybe launch a public consultation that yields yet another report for the bookshelf. Meanwhile, project after project is approved without adequate environmental protection rules in place. This pattern has been repeated again and again. Hundreds of Albertans participated in the government's oil sands consultation in 2006 and 2007. The Oil Sands Multistakeholder Committee delivered 120 action-oriented recommendations to the Alberta Government. Almost a year later the province still hasn't publicly responded to any of those recommendations.

Until the Alberta government's support for oil sands projects is matched by a sincere commitment to address their environmental impacts, Alberta will not shake the "dirty oil" moniker. Even worse, when global critics dig a little deeper for the truth, such a deceptive public relations exercise risks permanently marking Alberta as an untrustworthy environmental laggard.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Words may show a man's wit, but actions his meaning." Premier Stelmach would be well advised to act first, and talk about it later. Then, and only then, can Alberta's reputation be restored.

Dan Woynillowicz is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Pembina Institute. He served on the Oil Sands Multistakeholder Committee and is author of Oil Sands Fever. Simon Dyer is the Oil Sands Program Director with the Pembina Institute and co-author of Undermining the Environment: The Oil Sands Report Card. Both reports are available at www.oilsandswatch.org.