Context key in oilsands debate
Author: Deborah Yedlin
Source: Calgary Herald
Publish Date: Thursday, November 25, 2010
By Deborah Yedlin
The oilsands are not the worst group on the planet. This, gasp, from a climate change scientist -- the University of Calgary's David Keith (ISEEE's Research Director).
One can only imagine the jaws of environmental groups collectively dropping, given that the source is supposedly on 'their' side.
But Keith's view is that the energy business -- particularly the oilsands -- is a dirty business and the focus should shift to using less oil, instead of trying to clean up a dirty industry.
He has a point.
But try telling countries and cultures that have industrialized and continue to develop that they have to use less carbon-based fuels -- coal included.
Environmental groups have made a good business of demonizing the oilsands instead of taking a comprehensive view of energy production and use.
It would be more productive to look at the entire energy equation and determine whether the impact of an activity -- whether oilsands or shale gas development -- is appropriate in a given context.
Why is it that the oilsands are always fingered as the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, but that the impact of coal-fired power is not raised with the same amount of vitriol?
After all, if 47 per cent of U.S. electricity needs are from coal-fired power, even if electric cars become a reality unless the power source changes, or there is widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage, the impact on the atmosphere won't improve.
It's simply not possible.
How, then, to stop the unproductive messages that continue to emanate from environmental groups around the world that paint the oilsands as the consummate villain?
One approach is currently in progress: The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, with the Canada School of Energy and Environment (based at the University of Calgary), has been holding meetings with a broad range of stakeholders in key centres in Canada and the U.S.
The intent has been to bridge the information gap that exists with regard to the oilsands.
The oilsands dialogue, as it is more commonly referred to, will culminate in a white paper at the end of the year detailing the discussions and the issues to be addressed as a result.
In the parlance of the six-year-old sitting in the back seat -- after eight-ish weeks of this, are we there yet? No.
The consensus is that everything is moving in the right direction but it's going to take more time. This is definitely in keeping with the unofficial oilsands tag line these days -- 'It's a marathon, not a sprint.'
The intent of the dialogue has been to have as broad a reach as possible -- meaning that everyone from academics to bureaucrats, policy-makers, union leaders, First Nations and nongovernmental organizations have all been invited to presentations made largely by CAPP representatives and industry leaders.
The feedback thus far is consistent in terms of what many perceived; there are big information gaps, even among those who might have been seen as having a better understanding of the industry.
More specifically, the surprises have been on the lack of understanding and awareness south of the border of the environmental initiatives and regulations in place at both the federal and provincial levels. Nor was it well-known that both Alberta and British Columbia have instituted carbon taxes.
While environmental issues have been top of mind, south of the border jobs were also an issue.
According to CAPP chairman and Devon Canada chief executive Chris Seasons, the combination of the upstream, downstream and pipeline-building activities has put the oilsands in its entirety as the largest industrial project in North America.
The concern aired surrounded the potential impact of a policy shift on employment levels at a time when U.S. unemployment is stalled at 10 per cent.
Perhaps the most important outcome is the need for a respective dialogue acknowledging the concerns of all stakeholders.
It's time, as one participant said, to "stop shouting at each other.'
The challenge is that overcoming entrenched positions to achieve a respectful dialogue is easier said than done.
One way to surface the relevant information is by holding panel discussions, which is what CBC opted to do on Wednesday. The hour-long discussion involving Seasons, Keith and Jennifer Grant of the Pembina Institute revealed some interesting facts and perspectives for a broad audience.
Those who were there were no doubt surprised to hear Keith effectively dismiss two recent studies tying oilsands activity to water contamination.
"We don't have a water problem in the oilsands," he said. "The water contamination is most likely the result of airborne materials.'
The real water issues, said Keith, lie in the southern part of the province in the context of quality and quantity.
Seasons, as the industry representative, also played the water usage card and talked about finding balance in the context of oilsands development and the competing interests of security of supply and the environment and the fact that the industry understands the need for continuous improvement.
As the environmental representative the credibility of Pembina was also up for scrutiny as Grant stated the oilsands were holding the country back from establishing a climate change policy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who has been reading the papers knows Canada -- for better or worse -- is unlikely to forge its own path on this issue in the absence of the U.S. figuring out what it will do. It has nothing to do with the oilsands.
But it's precisely those kinds of positions and statements that prevent real progress from being made. As Suncor CEO Rick George has often said, it's time to have an 'adult conversation.'
The optimist might say this is starting to happen through CAPP and the CSEE, with undertakings such as Wednesday's CBC event adding to the process. Managed properly it can only be positive -- and that's critical given the economic importance of the oilsands not just to Alberta, but to the country.
Deborah Yedlin is a Herald columnist.