STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Much-scorned oilsands industry fights to improve its image

Posted by mhudema on March 14, 2008

Mining operations have nothing on Toronto’s urban sprawl, spokesman says
 
Gordon Jaremko
The Edmonton Journal
Suncor Energy president Rick George
CREDIT: Chris Wattie, Reuters
Suncor Energy president Rick George

EDMONTON – Rick George has no illusions about how the oilsands industry that his firm started 41 years ago stands in fashionable opinion.”There are a number of storm clouds threatening to rain on our parade,” the Suncor Energy president reminded the 2008 World Heavy Oil Congress in Edmonton this week.Business and government leaders set out to counter green crusaders’ portraits of Alberta as a dirty energy superpower, or at least clear up some of the hazy imagery, by asking for the oilsands to be viewed through a reasonable sense of proportion.George said industry aims to restore a balanced view in the months ahead, but did not claim the job will be easy.It is no accident the oilsands stick out as a new western target for international environmental scorn akin to the old Newfoundland seal hunt, observed Alberta Research Council president John McDougall.Alberta’s buried treasure differs from all other major energy deposits by being concentrated in a relatively small, accessible area under intense development by a highly visible cluster of industry, McDougall said.The bitumen belt from Cold Lake west to Peace River packs 13 per cent of world oil resources into one-1,063rd of the globe’s land area.The 140,200-square-kilometre oilsands region approaches Florida’s 170,304 square kilometres. But Florida is medium-sized by international standards, as the 22nd-largest state of the U.S.A.At least two Floridas would fit into the majority of Alberta north of Edmonton. With 661,848 square kilometres, Alberta could hold 3.9 Floridas and rivals 696,200-square-kilometre Texas.The richest one-fifth of the oilsands — known as the “mineable” deposits, shallow enough for shovels and trucks to scoop up with open-pit mines that star in green critics’ films — are in an 8,200 square-kilometre-band mostly north of Fort McMurray.Fewer than 500 square kilometres have been dug up since Suncor started the pioneer bitumen mining and upgrading operation in 1967.It has taken the oilsands industry 41 years to mine one one-hundredth of one per cent of the chiefly wild boreal forest that covers 3.2 million square kilometres or 35 per cent of Canada, George calculated.He urged critics to compare natural disturbance around Fort McMurray to Toronto urban sprawl since the 1960s. The city grew much faster, he recalled.The official Toronto metropolitan area has spread out across 7,125 square kilometres, or 87 per cent as much land as the entire potentially mineable oilsands.Comparisons do not flatter Canada’s biggest city, especially when a big difference in environmental policy is taken into account, George suggested.Unlike oilsands mines, urban or suburban real estate developers and homeowners do not make reclamation commitments to restore land to a natural state after they leave, he pointed out.Urbanization is strictly controlled in the oilsands region.It took years for Canada’s biggest municipality, 68,454-square-kilometre Wood Buffalo including Fort McMurray, to prod the province into selling modest parcels of the district’s entirely Crown land for new homes.The oilsands capital desperately needs healthy real estate development to cool off a market where the February average house price hit $647,000 and apartments rent for $2,000 or more a month, Mayor Melissa Blake said.But oilsands critics have been wrong to distort calls for provincial help to cope with growth into imagery of a northern community David fighting a Goliath international industry, she added.”We were in no way looking to stop development,” Blake said, recalling how her municipality urged the province to catch up during 2006 regulatory hearings on new industry projects.Alberta deputy energy minister Peter Watson, meanwhile, made a start on trying to set straight at least a basic statistical record on the bitumen belt’s role in global climate change.The oilsands currently generate one-tenth of one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, Watson calculated.Emissions from Alberta oilsands production are four per cent of the Canadian greenhouse gas total and less than the seven-per-cent share attributed to agriculture, he added.Oilsands “emissions intensity” — the average volume of carbon-dioxide waste generated per barrel of production — has fallen by 45 per cent since the province started keeping track in 1990, Watson said.”We’re fully expecting future technology will achieve greater reductions.”Gradual improvement targets set by Alberta’s long-range green policy are an attempt to make it credible and practical. “It’s not about stopping development. It’s about taking time to have a good plan,” Watson said.George described oilsands developers as eager to start laying a cornerstone of provincial and federal climate change policies, carbon capture and storage.”Industry has taken the lead on carbon capture and storage. I’m glad to see governments are moving forward. Their support is absolutely essential,” said the Suncor president, whose firm leads to a consortium proposing a multibillion-dollar carbon-dioxide pipeline and disposal network.gjaremko@thejournal.canwest.com

© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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