Do we want to ratchet back on jobs and revenue?

Contributed to The Edmonton Journal
Greg Stringham
Vice President of Oil Sands
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
December 18, 2013

In a recent editorial, the Edmonton Journal says Albertans need to ask some questions about oil sands development for environmental reasons. The Journal doesn't suggest who should answer their questions, but in the spirit of the conversation, here's what we think.

Is it time to ratchet back on the pace of new oil sands development?"

Perhaps the question should be: "Is it time to ratchet back on jobs, royalty and tax payments, and economic development?"

According to a recent national Ipsos Read poll, 65 per cent of Canadians believe oil sands can be produced while effectively managing the environmental footprint - a conclusion shared by the oil and gas industry.

Oil sands development is highly regulated by governments, including detailed environmental pre-conditions mandated as part of individual project regulatory applications, and ongoing monitoring programs completely independent from industry.

Projected benefits to Canadians include more than 900,000 jobs, and about $800 billion in taxes and royalties between now and 2035 that governments can use to help fund social services, education, health care and other programs.

"Until engineers and scientists successfully develop a timely, permanent way to eradicate the toxic ponds, should we allow new oil sands products and more ponds to be added to the boreal landscape?"

As a top priority, oil sands companies invest billions of dollars in tailings pond research and reclamation activity, individually and through the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, which pools intellectual property for the collective good.

As industry works collaboratively to minimize the environmental impact of existing and future tailings ponds, new technologies are tested at a full-size scale on the existing ponds to help accelerate research and development.

Tailings ponds allow industry to recycle 80-95 per cent of the water used in their processes. Oil sands mines are required to collect and use all water that enters the mine site and not discharge it offsite. Companies are also required to reclaim ponds to a sustainable landscape at the end of their life.

Collection systems and groundwater monitoring wells collect and monitor tailings migration. Monitoring to date shows no substances being released or predicted to be released in quantities or concentrations that would degrade or alter water quality.

"Until there is a proven way to dramatically slash carbon emissions, should more extraction and upgrading plants be built?"

The best way to improve performance is by investing in innovation, working day by day and putting the knowledge you gain to work for the future.

Although more than 70 per cent of oil-related GHG emissions come from the tail pipe, people don't stop driving until an affordable emissions-free vehicle is developed. Instead, we've seen higher efficiency vehicles, hybrids and other innovations advance the overall vehicle fleet.

Second, it's important to keep oil sands GHG emissions in perspective. In 2011, these emissions totalled 55 megatonnes. For comparison, emissions from the U.S. coal-fired power generation sector were 24 times that amount.

Globally, oil sands account for 0.14 per cent of global GHG emissions. While this is a reason not to discriminate against Canadian oil, it is not a reason for inaction. The Canadian oil sands industry cut per-barrel emissions by 26 per cent since 1990 and continues to develop technology for more reductions.

The newest oil sands mine produces oil with GHG emissions two per cent higher than the U.S. average for oil, and lower than heavy oil from Venezuela and California. GHG emissions at the newest oil sands drilling operation are five per cent higher than the U.S. average. These technologies are the new basis for future projects upon which further improvements will be built.

Alberta virtually stands alone among oil exporting jurisdictions worldwide with a law focused on GHG emissions. The law, in place since 2007, requires industry to reduce per-barrel GHG emissions by 12 per cent over the life of a project or pay a price of $15 per tonne. The money is paid into a provincial fund - more than $300 million to date - and earmarked for investing in technology to store and reduce emissions.

Technology and innovation will continue to enable responsible development, a reduced environmental footprint and significant benefits for Canadians.

It's good to ask questions and to scrutinize the answers. Too often, the answer "slow it down" comes from off-oil activists - not scientists, regulators and definitely not consumers.

Alberta has a strong history of developing solutions to challenging issues through innovation. The work is ongoing and new ideas are welcome.