CAPP says industry working to establish mutually respectful relationships

Contributed to The Hill Times
Greg Stringham
Vice President of Oil Sands
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
April 09, 2014
Greg's responsibilities include oil and gas markets, pipelines and oil sands issues in both the US and Canada. Subsequent to Alberta Oil's April 2014 interview with Chief Allan Adam on the impacts of oil sands development on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, we questioned Mr. Stringham on this impact and related issues.

Can you point to credible, independent scientific findings that show how the cumulative impact of the oil sands industry has not created environmental conditions posing nontrivial health risks to local communities, in particular to resident First Nations?

Canada's oil sands producers are deeply concerned about suggestions oil sands development is affecting people's health, most specifically resident First Nations. Safety is our industry's top priority and oil sands development must occur in a manner that keeps people safe, and benefits their overall quality of life.

On March 24, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. James Talbot released an updated Alberta Health Services cancer report for the community of Fort Chipewyan, outlining results from a study of cancer cases during the period between 1992 and 2011.

While this report shows slightly higher rates of three specific types of cancer, the overall cancer rate in the community is not significantly higher than expected. There were 81 cancer cases reported and the expected number would be 79 cases. At a news conference, Dr. Talbot said the government found little evidence that environmental conditions played a factor in the results.

It is the responsibility of the responsible health officials to provide the definitive interpretation of the results of this health study and to assess whether further health studies are required. We fully support recommendations made by the responsible health authorities in this regard.

This new report confirms the results of earlier studies that indicate no linkage between oil sands development and health concerns in Fort McMurray.

In 2010, scientists with the Royal Society of Canada who looked specifically for evidence of a link between health issues and oil sands development reported "there is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching downstream communities at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates."

In addition to a 2009 Alberta Cancer Board study, Royal Society scientists reviewed several other pertinent information sources, including a 2007 report titled Health Trends in Alberta, a report by the trace metals and air contaminants working group of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association, and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association's human exposure monitoring program.

Industry has supported previous health studies and is supportive of ongoing health monitoring and regional studies. Ensuring industrial emissions remain within thresholds for human health and do not adversely impact human health is imperative.

As an industry we are making a significant investment (up to $50 million per year) in the Alberta and federal governments' Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, created to enhance environmental monitoring in the region and provide data-based assurance of environmental health.

Enhancements include increased monitoring sites, more substances monitored, higher frequency of sampling, a greater level of monitoring sensitivity and broader geographic coverage.

Criticism has been leveled at oil sands mining operators because of the sheer length of time required to fulfill their obligation to remediate any and all disturbed land. Is there any chance that the remediation process can be dramatically sped up?

Oil sands producers perform reclamation on an ongoing basis as operations are completed in a given area. The objective of this progressive reclamation is to return the land to an "equivalent land capability."

Given the relatively early stages of oil sand operations - a typical oil sands mine has a 25 to 50 year lifespan and an in situ operation runs for 10 to 15 years - much of the industry's reclamation activity is still in the early stages. Companies are evolving their operations and the technology used to reduce their footprints and continue pursuing ways to manage impact on the land.

Since operations began in the 1960s, about 10 per cent of the active mining footprint has been or is being reclaimed by industry. Since 2009, the total active footprint of oil sands mines increased by 16,977 hectares and the area of land ready for reclamation or in some stage of reclamation increased by 450 hectares. In 2012, 90 per cent of the total active footprint for oil sands mining operations was cleared or disturbed land and 10 per cent was ready for reclamation or being reclaimed. This is a slight change from 89 per cent and 11 per cent respectively in 2009.

Maintaining the percentage of land in the reclamation stage while increasing the total active footprint demonstrates industry is keeping up with reclamation despite increasing development.

Through progressive reclamation, mature oil sands mining companies have been able to reclaim a more significant portion of land even as the mine continues to produce. For example, 21 per cent of Syncrude's Mildred Lake mining operation's total active footprint is ready for reclamation or is being reclaimed.

When an in situ well is no longer productive, it is decommissioned and the land is returned to a sustainable landscape. It takes about six years to fully reclaim the land - from capping the well and removing equipment to cleaning up, replacing soil and replanting vegetation. The process includes monitoring, seeding, fertilizing, tree planting, seed collecting, topsoil salvaging and replacing, and land form creation and contouring.

A government reclamation certificate is issued when the work meets landowner approval and regulated requirements.

Reclamation takes time. For example, it can take up to 80 years for a conifer tree to grow to maturity. Based on recommendations from a University of Alberta study, ConocoPhillips Canada created its Faster Forests program to speed up the process and several companies are piloting similar aggressive reclamation programs.

Through collaborations with universities, government and research institutes, industry, Aboriginal communities and the public, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is bringing together world-class expertise to address complex issues related to reducing the footprint intensity and impact of oil sands development on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta.

Under COSIA, the Alberta Biodiversity Research Chairs Program is intended to fast-track biodiversity science by providing funding and support to implement on-the-ground research in the boreal forest of Northern Alberta. The results of that field research will be knowledge that can be shared across Canada, to be used to avoid or minimize environmental effects across the nation's boreal forest.

Using current remediation procedures, is it even possible to return disturbed areas to conditions close to their original ecology?

The law requires land be returned to an "equivalent land capability." Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act states: "Equivalent land capability means the ability of the land to support various land uses after conservation and reclamation is similar to the ability that existed prior to an activity being conducted on the land, but that the individual land uses will not necessarily be identical.

The reclamation process includes monitoring, seeding, fertilizing, tree planting, seed collecting, topsoil salvaging and replacing, and landform creation and contouring, and the government reclamation certificate is only issued when the work meets certain requirements.

For instance, companies apply for reclamation certification when vegetation is mature, the landscape is self-sustaining as a thriving ecosystem and the land can be returned to the Crown for public use. In 2008, Syncrude received the first reclamation certification in the oil sands for the 104-hectare area known as Gateway Hill.

Eighty per cent of the commercially producible bitumen in the oil sands region is amenable only to in situ extraction. Does not this production method, which represents much of the industry's future, pose serious risks to groundwater and air?

Oil sands development occurs under regulated management and operations of water and air. This environmental focus encompasses both in situ production methods and mining production methods.

As part of the industry's Responsible Canadian Energy program, CAPP provides an annual progress report that highlight industry objectives, performance improvements and challenges in the key areas of people, air, land and water.

Annual industry-wide performance reporting is an opportunity to demonstrate the value and benefits a robust oil and gas industry provides, discuss our safety record, and our environmental advancements and challenges, with a view to assessing how we are doing and identifying areas where the industry needs to improve its performance.


The industry's water-related objectives are to continue to reduce the amount of fresh water required per barrel equivalent of production by improving water recycle rates, using low quality (e.g. saline) water sources where feasible, and by developing new technologies. We will safeguard the quality of regional surface and groundwater resources.

In situ projects recycle about 95 per cent of the water they use and draw no water from the Athabasca River. Drilling operators are shifting to the use of saline water from sub-surface aquifers and most new projects are using 100 per cent saline water for steam. From 2003 to 2012, the industry decreased fresh water withdrawal per barrel of oil sands from in situ production by 46 per cent.

Oil sands producers are required to conduct extensive water studies as part of the regulated Environmental Impact Assessment process, and must perform ongoing monitoring of surface and groundwater resources.

In addition, as an industry we are making a significant investment (up to $50 million per year) in the Alberta and federal governments' Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, created to enhance environmental monitoring in the region and provide data-based assurance of environmental health.

Enhancements include increased monitoring sites, more substances monitored, higher frequency of sampling, a greater level of monitoring sensitivity and broader geographic coverage.


According the Alberta Clean Air Strategic Alliance, air quality in Fort McMurray is better than many North American cities, including Toronto, Edmonton and Seattle. Based on analysis of average concentrations of common air pollutants, air quality in the Wood Buffalo region is improving in some areas and remaining consistent in others.

For nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide, in situ production is less intensive than mining production, so the trend toward more in situ production also means there continues to be a decrease in overall NOx and SO2 emissions per barrel of oil sands production.

The industry's objective is to decrease the overall intensity of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy produced, over time, largely through the development of and implementation of new technologies.

Oil sands companies pool intellectual property on hundreds of research projects to find innovative solutions to minimize impacts on air, land and water. This is on top of billions of dollars invested as individual entities in ongoing research and development.

Technology and innovation are critical tools for reducing emissions intensity as production of oil sands resources continues to grow. For example, solvent-cyclic steam-assisted gravity drainage is a new technology that reduces the amount of steam required for in situ extraction. In the future, it is expected to decrease GHG emissions intensity in mature in situ reservoirs. Additional technologies are being developed through COSIA.

With oil sands development characterized by some critics as "out of control" how can the industry as a whole ensure that at-risk flora and fauna in the region will be properly protected?

Oil sands development is highly regulated. Regulation includes detailed environmental pre-conditions mandated as part of individual project applications, and ongoing environmental monitoring programs conducted by industry and also through a separate government-driven program, completely independent from industry.

According to a recent comprehensive report by the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, the Lower Athabasca region's living resources are 94 per cent intact. The Status of Biodiversity in the Athabasca Oil Sands examines the status of more than 350 species of plants and animals. The report is available here.

Oil sands producers avoid sensitive habitats, optimize the area needed for well sites, and work with other users to reduce the disturbance footprint by sharing roads and pipelines. They also maintain site hygiene to deter animals, and use deterrence tools and programs to keep wildlife from harm, including wildlife bridges and cameras.

The industry funds and supports research on species such as woodland caribou and grizzly bears to determine how they are affected by operations.

CAPP - and the industry - is an active participant in regional land use planning. The Alberta government Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) represents a milestone step forward in the implementation of balanced land use planning and cumulative effects management in Alberta. Since September 2012, the LARP provides clarity and predictability regarding Alberta's vision for development in this region.

During oil and gas exploration activities over the past 40 years, fragmentation occurred in the boreal forest as corridors were cut to accommodate seismic exploration and access routes for exploration drilling. In recent years, there have been ongoing improvements in exploration and restoration techniques that have allowed oil and gas producers to minimize disturbance and achieve faster recovery of the forest.

Two major COSIA initiatives are underway to address legacy linear disturbances and return the boreal forest to high quality habitat. The Algar Historic Restoration Project and the Linear Deactivation Project are both aimed at addressing rehabilitating seismic lines. The two projects involve different approaches and methodologies, with the intent of sharing learnings across the COSIA companies as the projects progress.

The same Canadian spirit that helped industry unlock the oil sands continues to push us to find the best way to develop it. Oil sands technology and innovation will continue to enable more development, jobs and social benefits, a reduced environmental footprint, and lower costs.

How can Canadians be sure the oil sands industry is subject to regulatory oversight of the highest standards in terms of comprehensiveness and enforcement?

This is a good question, best answered by the regulators. While no external study has been released to date comparing regulatory oversight in Canada to oversight in other parts of the world, such a report would provide valuable information to Canadians.

Every oil sands project proponent has a legal duty to consult with aboriginal communities when proposed development would impact their traditional territory. Has this consultation process degenerated to the level of farce as some aboriginal groups have suggested?

On the contrary, oil sands consultation and partnerships have created tremendous economic value for aboriginal communities. And on the cultural side, 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, celebrations, cultural events, literacy projects and other community programs.

Certainly resolving, or reconciling Aboriginal issues and rights is daunting and difficult but to dismiss the hard work, cooperation and support shown by both Aboriginal groups and industry over the last 50 years, as "a farce" is extremely demoralizing.

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, we think 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 to progress together. Oil sands producers work hard to do that.

Oil sands projects are long term. No project may go ahead without direct and meaningful consultation. We consult directly with chiefs, counselors, elders, and community members, and gather information through meetings, studies and workshops.

The oil sands industry also encourages and supports studies required to address issues of concern to the local community. Corporations regularly cover the communities' costs for analyzing projects and seeking expert opinions. Discussion, scientific reports, viewpoints and any disputes are brought forward transparently at public government hearings.

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, David Suzuki and others 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.

Over the past 14 years, aboriginal companies in the oil sands region have earned more than $8 billion in revenue from work under contracts with oil sands companies. In 2012 alone, aboriginal companies earned more than $1.8 billion in revenue.

These are very significant benefits to First Nations in a region with few other options for economic development.