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Gordon Giffin served as U.S. ambassador to Canada in the Clinton-Gore administration 1997-2001. He is a member of the Canadian Natural’s board of directors and a partner in Dentons US LLP.

The recent debate about the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline has given some industry critics the excuse to revisit the question of the future of Canada’s oil sands.

As U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Clinton-Gore administration, I was privileged to learn much about Canada’s rich and abundant energy resources and industry’s efforts to ensure the environment is protected.

I have known and been a friend of Al Gore for more than 30 years. I have enormous respect for him – however, I disagree with recent comments made in the context of the debate about the pipeline.

The dramatic improvement in environmental stewardship achieved in the oil sands over recent years may not be well known south of the border, so it is worth examining the 21st-century facts.

As U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once declared: We are all entitled to our own opinions, just not our own facts.

I learned during my time in Canada that the long-life nature of the oil sands presented the opportunity for application of evolving research and development to achieve efficiencies greater than conventional production both economically and environmentally.

Moreover, the abundance of the resource, if prudently developed, provides the potential for North America to be energy self-sufficient for generations to come – a fact with enormous security and economic consequences.

After my years in public service, I joined the board of directors of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., a global energy champion that includes Canadian oil-sands production in its diversified resource base.

In recent years, the advent of innovative technologies and the focus on responsible development has led to a dramatically diminished carbon footprint and related environmental gains. The industry knows it needs to keep improving, and further improvements are yet to come.

While certain advocacy groups either ignore these facts or create their own, I am confident former vice-president Gore values the objective facts.

  • Oil sands producers have collaborated to lead the world in addressing the most pressing oil-sands environmental challenges. Through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), companies have shared 981 technologies worth $1.4-billion since 2012. In fact, investment in research and development has increased more than 10 times from 2009 to 2015. COSIA members have reduced greenhouse gas emissions intensity at in situ and mining operations by 11 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively, since 2012. Much of Canada’s oil sands production has a GHG emissions intensity that is at, or comparable to, the North American average intensity for crude oil, with a pathway to be even lower.
  • Oil sands producers recycle 80 per cent to 95 per cent of the water used. Since 2012, COSIA members have reduced fresh-water-use intensity at in situ operations by 42 per cent, and 18 per cent at mining operations.
  • Canadian Natural has invested in tailings management technologies that have achieved multiple environmental goals. At Horizon oil sands, Canadian Natural has added carbon dioxide (CO2) to tailings to enhance the solids-settling rate, reducing the size of its tailing pond by about half, and sequestering CO 2 in the process.
  • Canadian Natural’s experience leveraging technology has improved performance – reducing GHG emissions intensity by 18 per cent since 2013. Horizon’s emissions intensity is within 5 per cent of the average intensity for global crude oils when carbon capture and sequestration initiatives are considered.

There’s no doubt the North American energy industry must continue investing in technologies to keep reducing its environmental footprint. It seems ironic that the oil sands – the sector most vilified – is the leader in this effort.

As we continue our transformation, we must also recognize that fossil fuels will continue to be an important part of our economies and our everyday lives for decades to come. To argue otherwise is to deny reality – and deniers on either side of this dialogue should face skepticism.

The balanced approach is to continue with the responsible development and distribution of our domestic oil and natural gas resources. If we rely on other nations, like Venezuela, to supply energy to the world, there’s no doubt our global environment and security would be at risk.

Let’s continue to challenge conventional thinking – but based on facts.

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