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Syncrude's oil sands up-grader facility located north of Fort McMurray, Alta. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Syncrude's oil sands up-grader facility located north of Fort McMurray, Alta. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

ENERGY

Industry action can defuse oil sands’ critics Add to ...

The players of the Fort McMoney Web “game,” whose sponsors include the National Film Board and The Globe and Mail, evidently think the oil sands should be shut down immediately for the sake of humanity, because humanity has enough self-induced problems already.

Globe columnist Marget Wente, who has been my worthy opponent on numerous Fort McMoney debates over the last month, complained to me that the thousands of comments, and hundreds of thousands of debate votes registered on the site, were overwhelmingly opposed to the oil sands (she is, within reason, a supporter of the industry).

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A superficial analysis of the comments and voting patterns suggests she is right. What is not right is to dismiss the naysayers, critics and worriers as anti-development tree-huggers who would close the oil sands tomorrow and turn Fort McMurray into a museum city, where earnest tour guides would say: “Folks, you’re at the epicentre of what almost became the world’s biggest ecological disaster, all for the sake of keeping American SUVs on the road.”

Instead, I think the general tone of the comments and votes reflects the frustration, even anger, that the oil sands have yet to clean up their act and that the federal government, through apparently willful acts of environmental policy avoidance, is in effect promoting the “dirty oil” label, not the opposite. The oil sands and their shills in Ottawa are part of the problem, not the solution. If there were a ramped up effort to reduce the oil sands’ environmental footprint, I would bet that opposition to the industry’s expansion, including the transborder Keystone XL pipeline, would vanish faster than the five-buck notes slapped into the strippers’ garters in the Fort McMurray nightclubs (see related Fort McMoney video).

Certainly, the Fort McMoney numbers (as of late this week) put the oil sands into the environmental Pearl Harbor category. On the question, “Should we stop exploiting the oil sands,” 77 per cent, or 377,000 votes, said yes. A similar proportion agreed that the oil industry should be nationalized. Ditto the proportion who voted in favour of higher taxes on petroleum products.

Fort McMurray, we have a problem. Dispatching federal resources minister Joe Oliver to Europe and Washington to deny the problem’s existence only highlights the problem. As Bismarck said, believe nothing until it’s officially denied.

Alberta’s oil sands deserves its “dirty” label. Producing a barrel of oil from the oils sands, done through surface mining on an epic scale or injecting steam into the subterranean reserves to loosen up the guck, is more energy intensive, and hence carbon dioxide intensive, than pumping conventional oil from the ground. University of Ottawa environmental law professor Stewart Elgie is right when he says “The oil sands is becoming the poster child for the global campaigns to combat climate change and shift economies away from oil.”

If you dig your way into the website of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the industry lobby group, you will find an admission that the oil industry, which includes conventional oil and natural gas production, is ever grubbier. That’s because it is getting bigger as oil sands output rises relentlessly, boosting overall energy use and emissions. Energy intensity – the amount of energy used per barrel produced – is also going up as the oil sands come to dominate output. According to CAPP, the entire Canadian oil industry’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were up 21 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

To be sure, the oil industry isn’t entirely composed of environmental knuckle draggers bent on frying the planet for the sake of maximizing profit. They are working fairly hard to reduce the energy use per unit of output, not just because it’s good PR, but because doing so will eventually save money, just as insulating your house will make your furnace work less hard. Last year, a group of oil companies formed COSIA – Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance –– whose goal is to speed up the development of technology that would shrink the industry’s environmental footprint, and share it. It’s a worthy initiative that should have come many years ago.

The Alberta government has made some progress. It deserves ample credit for putting carbon regulations in place in 2007. But those regulations need updating. For instance, they require reductions in GHG intensity but not overall emissions, which continue to rise. The penalty for not complying is a measly $15 a tonne of emissions – too low to encourage cleaner behaviour.

The bigger laggard is the federal government. This is the government that yanked Canada from the Kyoto accord on climate change. It is the government that has failed to introduce domestic carbon dioxide output regulations. It gives every sense that it is tweaking industrial and environmental policy to favour one Canadian industry – the Alberta oil sands (see my opening Fort McMoney column at tgam.ca/Dwt1).

Would the feds, and the oil industry, be able to defuse the mounting criticism about Canada’s “dirty” oil if it were to launch credible carbon dioxide regulations? You bet they would. The changes made by, and imposed on, Canada’s forestry industry, are a good example. In the 1990s, it was the global poster child for reckless cutting in the hunt for easy profits. Now that same industry is known as a sustainability leader.

The Fort McMoney comments and vote tally can be considered largely helpful, not largely shrill. They tell all of us something that the federal government still refuses to acknowledge.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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