More oil sands facts, less rock-star rhetoric

Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Dave Collyer
President and CEO
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
January 16, 2014

Recent concerts by entertainer Neil Young to raise money and generate publicity for anti-fossil fuel protests demonstrate a key fact about life in Canada - everybody is entitled to their opinion, It's equally true, however, that everyone is not entitled to their own facts.

To understand the importance, value and challenges of oil sands development, and the industry's relationship to First Nations and other aboriginal peoples, there needs to be much more than inflammatory rhetoric from protest-anthem rock stars. As citizens we need a broad understanding of the balanced suite of facts about industry's benefits and risks because facts provide the context people require for their own decisions.

An unavoidable fact about crude oil and natural gas is that it's rarely found in places like Toronto or Calgary and increasingly found in remote areas where Canada's aboriginal people live, making First Nations and the industry neighbours, collaborators, business partners, and often, friends.

The recent report to the prime minister from Douglas Eyford on West Coast energy infrastructure highlighted some of the issues, opportunities and complexities regarding First Nations and ongoing development of Canada's natural resources. From establishing mutually respectful, trusting relationships to ensuring aboriginal people benefit from employment and business opportunities, to ensuring that resource development is undertaken in an environmentally sustainable manner, Eyford's report got it about right. He is correct in observing that it is not sufficient for companies and communities to simply get together a few times a year at cultural events, but that real, substantive participation in business opportunities and sustained engagement are required if we are to progress together.

There are certainly barriers to resource industry and First Nations collaboration, including those related to education and culture, unresolved land claims and differences regarding economic benefits and opportunities. However, what Neil Young and David Suzuki fail to acknowledge (and to the credit of First Nations, industry and governments) in the face of these challenges many significant successes - jobs, contracts, cultural programs, infrastructure, and deep and enduring relationships - have been achieved.

At present, oil sands companies contract with aboriginal-owned businesses for upwards of $1.3 billion per year in goods and services. And more than 1,700 aboriginal employees have permanent operations jobs in the oil sands. This is a significant benefit to First Nations communities in a region with few other options for economic development.
To be clear, no one in industry begrudges the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation or any other aboriginal community from representing their interests. And there's no question that aboriginal issues must be addressed if Canada is to have timely access to markets for its energy production - timely access that benefits all Canadians.

However, fostering conflict and divisiveness through off-oil rhetoric and ignoring the many examples of mutual benefits and shared value involving the oil and gas industry and First Nations is not constructive. It does not contribute to long-term solutions for consumers and it does not provide much-needed solutions for First Nations communities. Further, it tends to undermine the substantive relationships that have been developed between oil sands companies and aboriginal businesses, and the spirit of the many socio-economic agreements between individual companies and First Nations, including those with Fort Chipewyan.

From coast to coast, the majority of Canadians support the continued responsible development of the oil sands, according to public opinion polls conducted by independent third parties for CAPP.

That's in part because this important resource is developed with respect for aboriginal peoples and stakeholders who live and work nearby, with jobs and economic benefits across Canada, and with a strong, continuous focus on reducing environmental impacts.

Canadians have a long history of developing solutions to challenging issues through innovation. The work is ongoing and our industry welcomes new ideas so that we can continue to improve our performance.

But far too often, the call to significantly slow down or stop development - not really much of a contribution to the serious dialogue - comes from anti-fossil-fuel activists with individuals like Neil Young joining the chorus, not scientists, not regulators and definitely not consumers.

There is a better path forward - responsible oil sands development founded on collaborative engagement benefitting all Canadians, particularly those aboriginal communities living near the oil sands. We need constructive dialogue based on fact, not the divisiveness being fostered by the current Neil Young tour.