In defense of the oilsands – A celebration of a national treasure


“(The oilsands) will be a curse if it’s not managed properly, (but) it can also be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta if it is managed properly,” Cameron said.

When James Cameron took a three-day tour of Alberta’s oilsands in September 2010, the event was reminiscent of when another global superstar, Sir Paul McCartney, visited the ice flows, and found himself agitated over the “cruellest harvest” in the world, the Newfoundland seal hunt. It was all vaguely familiar, a Hollywood star using his or her cache to contort the media message to fit his or her cause du jour.

This denunciation from high made it more clear than ever that the oilsands are Canada’s most misunderstood industry, taken for granted by all too many people who would deplore the source yet relish in its benefits.

The Alberta oilsands (like the seal hunt) is not a media-friendly industry. It is susceptible to the negative impact of one-dimensional photographs of despoliation and ravaged landscapes. It’s true that taking oil out of the land has never been pretty. No mine in the history of the world has ever been. But to the one-dimensional snapshots, CBJ offers a counter thought. To defend the oilsands as the industry that will allow Canadians (and global citizens) to continue to live the way we do  to have jobs, housing, schools, cars, transportation, communication and prosperity.

Why we must be proud of the oilsands

There are many reasons. In looking at the amount of oil that is available around the world, Canada has the second-largest source of oil sources reserves in the ground compared only to Saudi Arabia. In fact, if you look at the amount of oil that is available for private investment—considering 80 per cent of oil in the world is controlled by government or national oil companies—the oilsands make up almost half.

When we take a look at developing the oilsands, it is with the global demand for energy in mind—a supply that will support a growing population and the economic growth that it expects to achieve over the next 30 to 50 years.

“Canada is the largest supplier of oil and petro products to the U.S., which is one of the largest markets in the world,” says Greg Stringham, VP of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). “Beyond that we are looking at opportunities in developing nations like Asia, India. Currently the oilsands comprises half of the total oil Canada produces. But as we look to the future, it becomes a much greater proportion as we see declines in our conventional oil and a fairly stable production of offshore oil in Atlantic Canada. From that perspective it provides a huge contribution. The Canadian Energy Research Institution said over the next 25 years, the oilsands will generate $1.7 trillion in economic growth in Canada over that period at a rate of $68 billion a year.”

The entire country has been shielded from the sharpest edges of the current recession in large part because of the industry in Alberta. “That really is one of the misconceptions, that this is a Western Canadian resource,” says Stringham. “It truly has economic benefits across the country, but the ones outside western Canada are really not well recognized or understood.”

Tina Kremmidas of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce backs Stringham’s sentiments. “With 44 per cent of the economic impact of the oilsands outside of Alberta, it does have impact across the country. A lot of Alberta jobs flow back to other parts of the county.”

Date compiled by the Canadian Energy Research Group in July, 2009, on the economic impact of the oilsands paints a vital portrait of the oilsands, saying the oilsands has contributed 240,000 direct and indirect jobs over 25 years projecting impact of $1.7 trillion to the economy.

“If you look at Canada’s GDP, one of the strongest components of economic growth in Canada is business investment in machinery and plants, and the energy sector has been at the forefront of that,” says Kremmidas. “They are playing a major role in terms of sustaining the economic recovery and retaining growth going forward.”

The federal government and Ontario wouldn’t have bailed out GM with $13-billion of tax money as easily without the Alberta oil patch. As so it is essential for our high-energy big cities—with all the infrastructure and development that goes with them—to support out biggest energy provider.

Reliable resource

“We don’t see the oilsands as a being [the only] component of that energy growth,” says Greg Stringham. “Having said that, there still is a demand growth for oil. If you are going to be looking for oil to be part of that mix into the future, which we see it being, then we want to make sure that source is reliable, secure, provides economic benefits to Canada and is done in a way that is responsible in both the environment and social aspects in which it was developed.”

To help facilitate this goal, CAPP has launched a public education campaign aiming to dispel certain misconceptions held about the environmental impact of the oilsands. The adverts address the main areas of environmental disturbance caused by the oilsands, namely water use and land use.

Land use

A prevalent misconception is that the whole area of the oilsands will be mined. When it comes to the use of the land, the real information is that 3 per cent of total land area in the oilsands can be mined, according to Stringham.  “The other 97 per cent of the oilsands under that land would have to be recovered using conventional drilling techniques. Not only is [the land impact] portrayed as the being the entire area that is going to be mined, it is also portrayed that it’s all going to be mined and not reclaimed. The government requires reclamation to happen and companies are legally obligated to file a reclamation plan before any mining can begin. The reclamation process is ongoing and not all left to the end.”

An area that demonstrates the success of these reclamation laws is called Gateway Hill. Energy giant Syncrude was the first company to receive a reclamation certification in the Canadian oil sands industry for the 104-hectare area known as Gateway Hill. Planted in the 1980s, it is Syncrude’s most established reclaimed area.

Reclamation efforts concentrate efforts on soil and vegetation development, landform design and construction, development of new reclamation methods and wildlife habitat enhancement. “[The Gateway Hill reclamation] shows that the land can be reclaimed, put back to a state of equivalent capability and then it can be put back to the government with trees and the original plants that were there. As part of the process, they gather the original seeds and plants and pinecones from the trees that are in the area, store them in a nursery and then bring them back and use the same genetic material for the reclamation and planting of the seeds,” says Stringham.

One set of facts

Kevin Slough is CEO of Filter Boxx, a company that provides a variety of water treatment solutions, potable water and sewage systems for the large construction and operations camps in the Fort McMurray area, is happy to laud the industry for its work in sustainability.  “I don’t think that the industry does a good enough job of conveying what it is they are working on. We’ve done a lot of work with Suncor, which has been extremely progressive in trying to cut their overall water usage, looking for opportunities to do internal recycling, and promote their ongoing study on the reduction of water use.”

Jon Tupper of Chamber of Commerce Fort McMurray echoes Slough’s thoughts. “[Canada is] a global energy source which has a positive impact on the world. We represent a stable secure source of energy that’s being developed in a regulated and responsible way by citizens that are engaged in the community, and who are great Canadians. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, not everyone’s entitled to their own set of facts.”

Milestone in tailings ponds reclamation

In September of this year, Suncor celebrated its first tailings pond reclamation and first complete surface reclamation of a tailings pond. Mayor Melissa Blake of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was present at a ceremony celebrating this achievement.

“It was the first effort that we had to reclaim a tailings pond which is quite a difficult task, but they’ve managed to do it successfully. I’m witnessing the success firsthand. You can see what has happened to that area, even though it’s going to take a long time to get it back 100 per cent,” says Mayor Blake. “It is an excellent first step. I see nothing but improvement for the future of reclamations. What Suncor has done has dried out the earth completely and planted native species so when you look at the area you have a green grassy field, things they hadn’t planned to put in the area have sprung up on their own. Even things as simple as mushrooms are a good sign that the earth is coming back to taking care of itself after we’ve used it.”

This shows that what was a tailings pond for many years can be reclaimed and put back to its natural state The fact that we can move to the reclamation of these tailing ponds quicker in a much more expedient time frame it shows the demonstration of technical improvements in the industry.

Unlike James Cameron, Mayor Blake is not just dropping in for a few days. These reclamation cycles can take 30 to 40 years, but Blake says the progress is tangible. “Unless you are on the ground, it’s hard to imagine the amount of destruction that had occurred to the earth being put back into a productive state, but that’s exactly what you see when you look at the bison roaming on the Syncrude reclamation project, for instance. Over time I can see nothing but confirmation that we will be able to put the land back to a state that will…sustain life and activity as we desire.”

National treasure

Properly understood, the work of researching, mining, processing and building the infrastructure to extract the oil, the entire process of engineering and technological achievement represented by the oilsands is a story of Canadian triumph. This is some of the most sophisticated, pioneering work of its kind in the entire world, both in terms of retrieval and reclamation.