Rebuttal to SF Gate San Francisco Chronicle: A Case for Optimism; Some Perspective on Oil Sands

Contributed to The San Francisco Chronicle
Tom Huffaker
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
October 08, 2009

Re: Behold! Canada's most disgusting export
Nothing like Alberta's revolting oilsands to destroy your optimism
SF Gate, San Francisco Chronicle
By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Case for Optimism: Some perspective on Oil Sands

As a displaced Northern Californian, one that's proud of our State's long leadership on matters of environment and science, I can't help but wonder at the lack of factual context and analysis in Mark Morford's piece on oil sands.

The Canadian oil sands are a large industrial project, and they present environmental challenges. We do not deny that, like other energy production, the oil sands are greenhouse gas intensive. But Mr. Morford's characterizations are out of step with the facts. The oil sands account for five per cent of Canada's emissions, Canada accounts for two per cent of global emissions, therefore oil sands represent one tenth of one percent of global emissions. He also describes the oil sands as bigger than "Wal-Mart", and bigger than "Saudi Arabia". This isn't true in a literal sense, nor is it true if he's talking about recent greenhouse gas emission figures the oil sands produced 33 megatonnes, while Wal-Mart's supply chain produced 200 megatonnes, and Saudi Arabia produced 165 megatonnes.

It also can't be denied that for the foreseeable future, the world, California included, is going to require energy from hydrocarbons. Global oil demand continues to grow, because the rest of the world would like to live as well as we do in North America. We need to increase our use of renewable fuels, and we will, but the fact remains that we're going to require energy from all sources, and oil sands has an important role to play in the North American energy supply mix. President Barack Obama's administration embraces oil sands as a friendly and secure supply of energy, as exemplified by Secretary of State Clinton's recent decision on increasing pipeline capacity from Canada, and by the statements of various senior U.S. government officials, including the President.

Far from being the greedy trolls described by Mr. Morford, Canadians, their governments, and the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the oil sands industry understand that oil sands development must balance environment, economy, and energy security. For instance, the province of Alberta (where the oil sands are found) has had a $15/tonne price on carbon emissions since 2007, the revenues from which are directed to research and development of technology to reduce emissions. California has no such legislation in place.

California still supplies much of its own oil, thanks largely to oil derricks in Bakersfield, and oil rigs off Santa Barbara. Interestingly, crude derived from Canada's oil sands is cleaner on a full life-cycle emissions basis than thermal heavy oil from Bakersfield.

It's also true that California's carbon intensive oil fields are in decline, which begs the question: where are Californians going to get the oil they need? The current top foreign suppliers of crude into the California market are places like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela governments that are hardly political allies, or reliable, secure suppliers of energy to the United States. One might also compare the respective environmental and carbon emission policies of these nations to Canada's, some of the most comprehensive and accountable in the world.

Mr. Morford repeats the hyperbole around the oil sands strip mining an area the size of Florida. The region that has been mined is about 330 square miles; you could fit it inside the San Francisco metro area 10 times over. By contrast the Canadian boreal forest covers an area 12 times the size of the state of California. Even at full development potential, only 0.2 per cent of the Canadian boreal forest will be impacted by mining activities. Furthermore, reclamation is continual (and mandatory by law, including bonded funds for this purpose held by the government) and approximately 40 square miles have already been reclaimed.

Another missing piece of context is that although mining will provide the bulk of production over the near-term, most of the growth in oil sands development will come from drilling rather than mining projects, using innovative technologies with minimal surface impact and no tailings ponds.

Canada is a friendly neighbor of the United States, a stable democracy and a free market economy that keeps its promises, whether contractual or environmental. The oil sands are being developed by real people doing important work. The innovation they are applying today will not only reduce the environmental impact of oil sands projects (carbon emissions are already down 33 per cent per barrel since 1990) but may also apply to other carbon intensive industries, such as coal-fired electricity and manufacturing processes.

This is an industry that exists because of its ability to find answers to tough questions. The oil sands industry is determined to do its part to contribute to future energy supply and economic growth by unlocking the world's second-largest oil reserve in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way. We'll continue to improve our environmental performance and we are more than willing to engage with those who wish to have reasoned and realistic dialogue about the changes that we all need to make in the production and use of energy. We reject the bleak outlook offered by Mr. Morford. Instead, we make the case for optimism, as a wholly legitimate perspective on Canada's oil sands as a benefit to all North Americans.

Tom Huffaker
Vice President, Policy and Environment