OTTAWA — Canada’s oil sands producers are tired of their image as environmental bad boys and are fighting back. As their critics get more vocal, the companies have decided to band together to get out the message that they are committed to reducing the environmental damage that results from oil sands development.
In an interview Monday, Imperial Oil Ltd. chief executive officer Bruce March said the oil companies are making major investments in new technology that will dramatically reduce the oil sands’ impact on water, land and air.
Mr. March spoke in the interview as part of the industry’s kickoff of an aggressive communications campaign that includes a new website and a series of national advertisements that, the industry says, are designed to engage Canadians in a dialogue about the controversial projects.
The Imperial Oil CEO said the development of the oil sands is a national project, similar in scope to the building of the railway in the 19th century.
“It really deserves a fulsome, national debate,” he said.
The campaign – which is managed by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – is receiving support from all the major oil sands producers.
CAPP members supporting the initiative include Suncor Energy Inc., Syncrude Canada Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd., Petro-Canada, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Nexen Inc., EnCana Corp., ConocoPhillips Canada and Canadian Oil Sands Trust. The companies would not say how much they intended to spend on the effort.
Greenpeace and other environmental groups have urged governments to impose a moratorium on oil sands development at the same time that there is growing criticism in the United States of its environmental impact. One serious challenge is contained in an energy bill passed last December that prohibits the U.S. military and other government agencies from purchasing fuel refined from unconventional sources, such as oil made from coal or the oil sands.
This weekend in Miami, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a climate change resolution that urges cities to discourage the use of fuels derived from “high-carbon” sources like the oil sands.
Mike Hudema, a Greenpeace Canada campaigner, slammed the CAPP effort as a “propaganda campaign” aimed at “green-washing” the world’s dirtiest source of crude oil. He said there is no dodging the fact that the massive oil sands boom will have a devastating impact both on the local environment and on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s a situation out of control and we don’t need a new website, or fancy advertising – we need action,” Mr. Hudema said.
Imperial Oil recently won federal-provincial approval for its Kearl oil sands plant, which environmentalists had opposed due to the expected increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on local water resources.
Mr. March said the industry is well aware of the environmental challenges it faces as it looks to triple oil sands production over the next decade. He said companies need to communicate better to dispel some “misperceptions” about the oil sands. For example, he said, there is a common but mistaken belief that the oil sands are the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. While the sector represents the fastest-growing source, it currently accounts for about 4 per cent of Canada’s total emissions.
Still, companies are investing in new technology that will reduce greenhouse emissions, water use and potentially the size of tailings ponds, Mr. March said.
As new technology comes on stream, he said, “the environmental impact of oil sands development will be much smaller than what we’ve seen in the past 25 years,” he said.
Syncrude, for example, now recycles 88 per cent of the water it uses, dramatically reducing its intake from the Athabasca River.
Within the next decade, companies are expected to begin adopting carbon capture and storage technology, which collects carbon dioxide from various stages of production, then permanently stores the greenhouse gas underground.
Mr. March said Canadians need to weigh the costs of oil sands production against the benefits, both in terms of economic activity in Canada, and the provision of sorely needed supplies to an energy-hungry world.
He noted that global energy consumption is forecast to grow 30 per cent over the next 25 years, fuelled by improving living standards in the developing world. And new sources of supply – like the oil sands – are critical to meeting that demand growth.
Mary Griffiths, a senior policy analyst with Calgary-based Pembina Institute, welcomed the oil industry’s effort to communicate with Canadians on the development of the oil sands – so long as they don’t simultaneously pursue business as usual.
“I think it is good that they are willing to enter into a dialogue to hopefully discuss how things can be done better,” Ms. Griffiths said.
The environmental think tank has called for a “pause” in the development of the oil sands until technology can be developed to dramatically reduce the ecological impact.