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A Suncor oilsands mine facility seen from the air near Fort McMurray, Alta., Monday, Sept. 19, 2011.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

A majority of Canadians support oil sands development so long as continuous efforts are made to limit its environmental impact, says a new poll commissioned by a conservative think tank.

When presented with a list of oil industry arguments for the environmentally friendly aspects of oil sands production, 71 per cent of people surveyed in an online poll said "significant" efforts have been made to limit oil-sands' environmental impact, according to Léger Marketing.

A majority of respondents – 72 per cent – said the "best approach" going forward is to continue with oil sands development while maintaining "a continuous effort to limit the environmental impact."

The survey was conducted for the Montreal Economic Institute and released along with a research paper outlining how oil-sands producers are innovating and introducing new technology to limit environmental damage as well as reduce production costs.

"Few people are aware that the production of a barrel of oil from the oil sands emits between 26 and 29 per cent less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than twenty years ago, or that more than 70 per cent of the water used in the extraction process is recycled," said co-author Pierre Desrochers, an associate geography professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga and an associate researcher at the institute.

He and co-author Hiroko Shimizu add that major challenges remain, particularly the presence of tailing ponds containing residues from the treatment of oil sands.

They say that several promising solutions are being tested to speed up the sedimentation process and possibly eliminate the need for the ponds.

Léger Marketing says a probabilistic sample of 2,560 respondents would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 1.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Canada's oil sands have become a huge target for critics who say they devastate the natural landscape, contribute excessively to global warming and are dirty, costly and unsustainable over the long term.

In North America, a well-organized environmental movement concerned over climate change has mounted a high-profile campaign against proposed oil-sands pipelines Keystone XL and Northern Gateway.

Some scientists, however, argue that other energy sources are more dangerous to the climate.

In their study, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu say oil sands extraction provides a valuable resource for which there are at present no better alternatives.

They argue that the oil sands represent a "minor disturbance" compared with the age-old practice around the world of transforming wetlands into agricultural lands.

Oil sands account for only 6.5 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas emissions, or 0.1 per cent of global emissions, they contend.

To get the 71 per cent response from those polled that efforts to limit the environmental impact of oil sands are significant, Léger Marketing phrased its question this way:

"According to you, are the following measures to limit the environmental impact of oil sands production significant or not?

· Greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil produced from the Canadian Oil Sands have fallen by 29% since 1990.

· Around 70% of the water used in oil sands projects is now recycled.

· A new technology could soon eliminate tailing ponds, which contain toxic discharges from oil sands production.

· 80% of the oil sands can only be produced through drilling techniques that use much less land than mining.