Oil and Water Don’t Mix – But Can They Co-Exist? - A GLOBE-Net Editorial

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Courtesy of GLOBE Foundation

Real progress is being made to reduce the environmental impacts of oil sands activities. But that message is being lost in the flood of bad press about contamination of adjacent waterways and the concerns about those ugly tailings ponds. Oil and water do not mix. But can they co-exist?

GLOBE-Net, September 1, 2010 - August has not been a good month for the Alberta oil sands industry. The tidal wave of bad news that flooded the media this month has put oil patch leaders and the Government of Alberta on the defensive.

First was the 'Re-think Alberta' campaign led by Corporate Ethics International, which urged Americans and Britons to 'Rethink Alberta' as a tourism destination in view of the environmental damage being caused by oil sands developments. Its images of oil soaked birds convey a starkly negative message. 

Then came along reports that indicated oil sands exploitation was responsible for unacceptable levels of contamination in soils and adjacent waterways, in particular the Athabasca River that traverses the main concentration of oil sands development and from which much of the water needed to extract bitumen from the tar-heavy earth is taken. 

The first of these reports ('The Hidden Dimensions: Water and the Oil Sands'), released by the Opposition Liberal Party two weeks ago, presents the dissenting views of Liberal members of The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development examining the impact of Oil Sands Development on Canada's Freshwater. (The draft report of the Committee's two-year review was shredded, apparently because agreement could not be reached on its main conclusions.) 

The 'dissenting report' decries the 'tale of denial by interested parties - private sector and government about the potential negative consequences the industry might be having on this vital resource', and blasted the long-standing abdication of federal leadership in this area. 

The second report, released just this week, was a peer reviewed study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences co-authored by University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler.

Their year-long study compared water quality above and below the oil sands areas along the Athabasca River. They found concentrations of heavy metals (cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel) below active oil sands areas that were above national guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. Some are considered dangerous to human health even at low concentrations. 

Both studies stand in stark contrast to the findings of a government-supported and industry-funded agency, called the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), which as recently as 2009 said the Athabasca's water quality was similar to conditions before oil sands development. In effect it said that the Athabasca watershed naturally contains such heavy metals. 

Federal environment minister Jim Prentice, responding to questions about the University of Alberta study said that federal scientists have always told him that any contaminants such as lead or mercury in the Athabasca River are naturally occurring, not from industry.

'That has consistently been what I've been told as minister by the federal scientists,' he is quoted as saying in an Oilweek article.

To add insult to injury, a number of major retail chains declared they would not use gasoline refined from Canadian oil sands. The Gap, Timberland, Levi Strauss and Walgreens joined the initiative led by the San Francisco-based environmental group Forest Ethics. Whole Foods and Bed, Bath and Beyond had previously joined the boycott according to the Canadian Press.

Oil industry executives were not pleased. Under the umbrella of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the major oil sands players have funded a multi-million dollar campaign to change public perceptions of the industry and to tell the other side of the story - namely that serious efforts are being made to reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands and to accelerate the process of rehabilitation of the massive tailings ponds that have been the target of so much international consternation. 

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach vowed to personally write the heads of the four companies to point out that the Athabasca River has one of the most protective water management frameworks that exist on any river in the northern hemisphere.

Earlier in August at a meeting of fellow Premiers, Premier Stelmach launched a public relations campaign stressing the economic importance of oil sands production to the Canadian economy, and expanded on 'Alberta's Clean Energy Future'. 

His information package provided commentary on what Alberta is doing to reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands as well as details on the province's $2-billion carbon capture and storage commitment. It also outlined the new regulations for tailings ponds and water usage in the oil sands. 

Still smarting from the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico,  some American politicians and environmentalists have urged the Obama Administration to limit further growth of US imports of 'dirty oil' from Canada. (See GLOBE-Net article 'U.S. uncertain about oil sands: How should Canada respond?') 

Premier Stelmach has responded with his oft quoted statement 'A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day.' 

Some critics have countered by noting feeding America's addiction to oil does not make Canada one of the good guys. 

What is sad about these recent developments is that the real casualties have been truth and credibility.

As the anti-oil sands rhetoric increases, many people (particularly outside Alberta) are beginning to dismiss oil industry reports of technological breakthroughs that will lessen the environmental impacts of oil sands development or which will speed up the tailings pond reclamation.

Those CAPP-sponsored TV commercials that portray oil sands workers and scientists as just plain folks as much concerned about the environment as they are about profits, are seen as nothing more than industry hype.

This is unfortunate because some real progress is being made by companies such as Shell and Suncor to develop technologies that will take years off the timeline for restoration of disturbed land areas. (See GLOBE-Net article Suncor receives approval for tailings management plan.'

Oil industry executives fully understand the problem. 'Unfortunately, our record of continuous improvement has been missing from debates on oilsands development, primarily because we, as an industry, have done a poor job of telling our story,' said Imperial Oil chief executive officer Bruce March earlier this year in Toronto.

On the other side of the great divide are various environmental groups, many of whom have also lost credibility. Stunts to drape banners from atop oil sands equipment make for good press, but do little to achieve real progress. 

This too is unfortunate because some environmental groups have done some top notch research and their findings deserve airing and discussion. But lines have been drawn in the sands so to speak, and there is little real dialogue across them. 

Perhaps most damaged in terms of credibility are government supported research efforts that claimed there was minimal or no environmental impact associated with the oil sands. Their work really does need to be reviewed by competent third party experts to determine once and for all how serious is the problem. 

It is quite reasonable, says U. of A. Professor Schindler, to expect that disturbances of soil and water on the scale evidenced daily in the oil patch will have an impact on the surrounding ecosystems. To say otherwise is just plain wrong. 

He's right, of course. The reality is that oil sands exploitation comes at a very visible and very real environmental cost. No public relations effort will change that.   

The only thing that will change public perceptions or that will heighten public acceptance of the oil sands is evidence of real progress to mitigate - and where possible - to eliminate those negative impacts. 

And that progress must be verified by an independent body whose credibility has not already been damaged. 

That rules out a lot of heavy hitters: the oil industry and its spokesperson agencies; the environmental groups that have dug themselves into a firm redoubt; government funded laboratories that may have already dropped the ball; and of course partisan political players at all levels of government. 

There are not many truly qualified third party players left that can tell it like it is. But there are some very fine minds in the energy sector, many of whom with interests that go beyond the simple metric of profits.

By working with these people and with other entities that understand both the imperatives of environmental protection and the importance of sustainable economic development, a much clearer and more accurate picture can be put to interested observers both at home and abroad. 

Everyone benefits when the true facts are made known and are reasonably acted on. In the case of the oil sands, the issues are simply too important to be sidelined by partisanship or a breakdown in communications.

Customer comments

  1. By Trevor Marr, P.Eng. on

    To tackle the studies, right or wrong, I feel that industry and government funded water treatment facilities built upstream of communities would be a viable and good-will solution. Comments? Trevor Marr, P.Eng.