Like Neil Young and others in our democracy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu is entitled to his opinion about how Canadian oil sands are developed. However, like Young, his concern about oil sands development and climate change does not entitle him to his own facts nor justify disparaging remarks about Canada and the oil sands industry.
Tutu's comments were ill-informed about industry's environmental and social performance, ignored the reality of growing global energy needs and offered no solutions to current challenges - energy, economic or environmental.
The facts tell a different story, but one that appears to be too nuanced and complex for the headline-grabbing imagery favoured by industry critics.
Consumers in Canada and throughout the world choose to use oil in their daily lives, in transportation, heating and in myriad consumer products including shoes and plastics.
The International Energy Agency says "modern energy services are crucial to human well-being and to a country's economic development" and they estimate more than 1.3 billion people suffer from energy poverty around the world, 95 per cent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa or developing countries in Asia.
As economies grow and standards of living improve in these developing countries, the reality is energy demand will grow.
The IEA forecast says by 2035 fossil fuels will comprise 76 per cent of the global energy mix, down only slightly from current levels. This type of growth-driven demand is especially evident in South Africa, where the economy is growing and 77 per cent of total primary energy consumption comes from coal.
Canada's oil and gas resources can help meet growing global energy demand. We develop these resources in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, generating economic benefits across the country in the process.
Archbishop Tutu visited Fort McMurray as the guest of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, themselves both beneficiaries and critics of the oil sands industry.
There are many examples of industry and aboriginal people working successfully together - in communities, as employees and employers and as business partners. More than 1,700 aboriginal people are employed in the oil sands industry, and over the past 14 years aboriginal-owned companies have earned more than $8 billion in revenues from the oil sands industry.
As well, in 2011 and 2012, oil sands companies contributed more than $20 million to aboriginal communities in the Wood Buffalo and Lac La Biche regions for school and youth programs, cultural events, literacy projects and other community programs.
That seems like a win-win, but it is not to say everything is perfect. Barriers to resource industry and aboriginal communication, trust and collaboration still exist. These include unresolved land claims, and differences regarding economic benefits and opportunities. More can be done by governments to address apparent and immediate gaps in, for example, education and training.
Tutu called for a boycott on fossil fuel before departing Fort McMurray, we would assume, either from the region's new airport terminal or on its busy highway. The important point is these actions illuminate the practical reality of global reliance on fossil fuels.
Facts are also important to the carbon discussion, although neither seemed to be of much interest to Archbishop Tutu. Oil sands account for 7.8 per cent of Canada's greenhouse (GHG) emissions and about 0.14 per cent of global emissions, or about 1/1,000th of global GHG emissions. Total emissions are growing as production increases, but industry has reduced GHG emissions from every barrel of oil sands crude by 26 per cent over the period since 1990 by applying new technology and improving efficiency.
Canada's oil sands producers have set a GHG emissions intensity goal of producing oil on par with or better than competing alternative supplies. In fact, the newest oil sands mine produces oil with GHG emissions intensity only two per cent higher than the U.S. average for oil, and GHG emissions intensity at the newest oil sands drilling operations are only five per cent higher. These new projects set the bar for the next generation of oil sands projects.
And Alberta is one of only a very few oil-producing jurisdictions in the world with GHG regulations, including a price on carbon.
"No one wants to see an end to industry," Tutu said in Fort McMurray, as reported in the Globe & Mail. "If you have an industry that is responsible, they have to be commended and encouraged."
Perhaps when Archbishop Tutu next elects to fly into Canada, he will ground his comments in reality and take time to understand the facts about oil sands development.
In that event, we think he would conclude this is a responsible industry, working collaboratively to apply leading technology and innovation to provide a product that the world is going to need for many decades. He might even join the many who commend and encourage the oil sands industry for the progress it has made on environmental and social performance and for the benefits it provides across Canada and North America.