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Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch

Todd Hirsch

The quest for truth in the oil sands Add to ...

The history of human philosophy has been punctuated with the quest for truth. "What is truth?" asked Pilate in the Book of John. Plato, Descartes and Nietzsche chased that same slippery question. And despite their progress, Albertans in 2010 seem to be no further ahead when we consider our oil sands and ask, "What is truth?" Are they an economic bonanza? Or an environmental apocalypse?

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On one hand, oil sands companies have been making tremendous strides in reducing the amount of water used in extracting the oil. And according to them, they've also reduced the amount of greenhouse gases released in the mining process by as much as 30 per cent.

Even more impressive, new techniques for releasing the trapped oil at deeper levels involves an in situ method, whereby steam is injected into the frozen sand, loosening the oil and allowing it to be brought up to the surface. The in situ method uses much less water and its footprint on the pristine forest is hardly noticeable. About 90 per cent of future oil sands projects are in situ, rather than surface mining.

But then, the anti-oil-sands lobby groups refute everything the oil companies say. Recently, for example, a "fact sheet" released by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute asserts that in situ extraction techniques actually have greater emission of greenhouse gases and sulphur dioxide per barrel of bitumen produced than surface mining.

And other reports claim the tailings ponds problem is actually getting worse, rather than better. They argue reclaimed land on former mine sites is a joke, and that it will never be home to the complex biodiversity that existed before. And they point to reports suggesting cancer rates among aboriginal communities are rising.

So what are Albertans to think? Many of us are conflicted. Despite the obvious economic benefits of the oil sands, we care about the environment every bit as much as other Canadians. We're a bit embarrassed by the (often unfair) coverage the oil sands get. We don't like the idea of a thousand ducks dying in poisonous tailing ponds any more than anyone else.

The problem is that both the oil sands companies and the environmental lobbyists have enormous incentive to offer selective information.

On the corporate side, the urge to paint oneself a bit greener than is perhaps merited is obvious. Shareholders want to see improvements, and no corporate leader wants to be seen as the bad guy.

But environmental lobbyists also have a huge financial reason to be selective with the data in their "fact sheets." They've created an enormous industry employing tens of thousands of people around the world.

Groups, such as Northwest & Ethical Investments LP, a Canadian-based manager of socially responsible mutual funds, seek to provide investors with environmental and ethical investment choices. They're making headway in working with the oil companies for full disclosure and transparency on their environmental records. This can certainly help investors in their search for truth.

Yet, it's still hard to know just what to believe. Most of us want to support the oil sands for the good we see in them: a vast store of hydrocarbons the world needs, situated within a liberal democracy where the rule of law and human rights are upheld, yielding enormous financial and employment benefits. We see the wealth they can provide to shareholders, employees and the province. But we also want the ducks to live. And for cancer rates to fall. And for the rest of the world to stop protesting our "dirty" oil.

No one is lying. But no one's telling the complete truth, either. Both sides are busy "educating the public" on what they want us to believe. Yet, sadly, we're left not knowing what to believe at all.

Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based senior economist at ATB Financial. The opinions are his own.

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