Cleaning up the Oil Sands

Calgary, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - Ten of Canada’s largest oil sands companies have joined forces to clean up the oil sands - or at least to clean up the poor image of the environmental and social impacts of developing Canada’s oil sands. 

The group - Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Petro-Canada, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Canadian Oil Sands Trust, Nexen Inc., Imperial Oil Ltd., EnCana Corp., and ConocoPhillips - have launched a new Web site where Canadians are invited to share the full spectrum of their views on Canada’s oil sands.

"We want to do a better job of communicating with Canadians. We need to understand the concerns that are being raised and respond to them with real solutions," says the web site.

A national advertising campaign to draw attention to the initiative will start on this week, with the aim to deal head on with the issues that bother Canadians, and many others around the world, about the environmental impacts associated with the exploitation of the second largest pool of economically viable oil.

The web site does not duck the issues - Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Water, Land Use, Security of Energy Supplies, Economic Impacts, and Social Impacts. Nor does it sugar-coat the concerns.

"The debate around oil sands has gotten very national in scope and it’s also gotten very polarized," said Rick George, CEO of Suncor in a Financial Post article. "The first step is to open ourselves up to listen to what their concerns are. Hopefully the second step is to get a dialogue going – an even-handed dialogue, which I think has been missing in this conversation in Canada."

George’s concerns are well founded. As noted in an earlier article, oil sands related activities have become a significant contributor to Canada’s increasing GHG emissions. (Why are Canadians such bad polluters?)

A report released in February 2008 by Environmental Defence (Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands) focuses on concerns being expressed across Canada and around the world about the environmental cost of exploiting the Tar Sands of Alberta, which it calls Canada’s most serious environmental liability.

Kevin Meyers, president of Houston-based ConocoPhillips’ Canadian subsidiary also quoted in the Financial Post article, notes "We have some tough decisions we are facing as a society. I personally believe we can do it all - develop the oil sands and do it in a responsible manner that helps provide the energy that North America and the globe needs - but if people say no, we don’t want that, then we have to talk about the alternatives."

In reality, the alternatives will come nowhere near meeting Canada’s future energy needs, a fact clearly pointed out in a sobering assessment of our energy future released last November by the National Energy Board.

Oil sands production will grow and will contribute to increased exports and Canadian economic growth notes the report. While emerging technologies and renewable energy resources such as wind power and small hydro power projects will be increasingly used, fossil fuels will continue to be the dominant source of energy supply for Canadians through to 2030 says the Energy Board.

And it’s not just the Canadian demand that is in play here. The voracious appetite south of the border for high quality oil from the Alberta tar sands is the principal stimulus to the over $18 billion in oil sands related infrastructure investment planned as of 2008, and plans to raise overall production from 1.3 million barrels a day to 3.5 million barrels over the next decade.

Which raises interesting questions about US calls for cutbacks in imports of ‘dirty oil’ from Canada. US Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama has vowed to break America’s addiction to "dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive" oil and one of his first targets might well be Canada’s oil sands.

Also this week a group of big-city Mayors in the US singled out Alberta’s oil sands in a resolution calling for national guidelines to track the life-cycle impact of different types of fossil fuels.

All in all, the move by the oil sands producers to open the debate to a broader audience could not have come at a more propitious moment. There is a great deal at stake here, not just for the economic well being of the oil and gas sector which is doing quite well at the moment due to the high world price for oil.

Also at stake is the well being of people and communities that are feeling firsthand the environmental, social and economic impacts of the near rampant expansion of oil patch exploitation activities.

"The CEO’s of the 10 companies that have come together to launch the public dialogue on the oil sands should be commended for their timely efforts," says Dr, John Wiebe, President and CEO of the GLOBE Foundation of Canada.

"But words are not enough," he adds. "You cannot gloss over the fact that the environment has suffered greatly as a result of oil sands related activities and some very serious, expensive, and focused efforts are urgently required not only to remediate already damaged areas but also to mitigate any further detrimental impacts.

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