Insight & Analysis

Best Ever or Worst Possible: The Canadian Oil Sands

By Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn

Wayne Dunn is an award-winning global CSR expert with extensive teaching, writing, lecturing and Advisory Service experience. He is supported by an extensive faculty and advisory team.

This post might seem out of character for me but I have become so frustrated by such an important issue being communicated so badly.  

Best Ever or Worst Possible:  The Canadian Oil Sands
Development of the Canadian oil sands is the worst: unsound, unethical, anti-planet and pretty much everything else
Or
Development of the Canadian oil sands is the absolute best alternative for our petroleum addicted world.
Let me start by saying three things.
1.      I really don’t know much about the development of the oil sands, at least not enough to claim any sort of expertise.
2.      I think that we are all addicted to petroleum and that is not a good thing.  But, have I haven’t seen anything from the stop the oil sands group that suggests that stopping the oil sands will help this issue.
3.      I don’t believe that stopping the development of the Canadian oil sands will curtail our global appetite for petroleum produced energy but would simply mean that we would get more of it from elsewhere.
For me this means that the central question in the oil sands debate is about should we consume petroleum energy from the oil sands, or from somewhere else.
Like many of you, or at least those of you from North America, I’ve been bombarded by terribly polarized opinions on the development of the oil sands.
It is frustrating.  This is important stuff.  Yet, neither side seems adult enough to present a well-reasoned argument, or at least they haven’t connected a well-reasoned argument to a communications plan which meant that you could actually hear it
·         We have some industry infomercial like ads on TV that make it seem like just the best thing ever.  No need to ever be concerned about anything.
·         We have a Canadian government who, in their clumsy attempts to assist the industry, have made it seem like they are willing to throw environmental regulations and safeguards out the window to support quick project approval.
·         And then there is the steady parade of over-paid movie stars and celebrities, prancing through the media telling us how absolutely earth and civilization ending terrible the industry is.
·         Can anyone tell me how being a famous celebrity makes you an expert on this subject?
Does anyone else wish that one or more of the key stakeholders was mature enough to trust that some comparative facts and objective (or even partially objective) information would be helpful?
Here are some things I wish that they would tell us
On Environment
Petroleum production has nasty, terrible even, impacts on the environment.  Not just in Canada but globally.  Sure, it is getting better, but not nearly fast enough. 
I wish we had a different way to power our planet and hope that we will soon get to one.  But, in the interim, let’s think about this rationally.
I want to know the comparative environmental impact of oil sands petroleum and that from elsewhere.
·         Carbon: What is the carbon cost per barrel of oil, delivered to where it will be used for oil sands petroleum?  How does that compare to petroleum from other major global oil fields
·         Carbon: How is the carbon cost per delivered barrel changing over time from the oil sands and other producers?  In other words, who is investing in reducing their carbon impact?
·         Water and other Natural Capital/ Global Commons inputs:  Similar to carbon.  How much is used per barrel (delivered to where it will be used) and how does that compare to other major global oil fields.  What are the trends?  Which fields are getting more efficient at using Natural Capital.
·         Overall impact: How can we quantifiably compare the overall environmental impact of energy from the oil sands with energy from alternative locations; including the cost of transporting it to the end user
And, while we are on the environment can anyone explain why nobody is assessing and monitoring the cumulative impact of oil sands development on the production areas and all the way downstream through the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie River systems.
On Human Rights
Much of our planets remaining petroleum reserves are in places that don’t win so many human rights awards. 
Syria, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia and a host of other producing countries have some pretty dismal human rights records.  And, let’s be honest, our western companies and governments have cozied up to these regimes and their human rights track records to get access to their petroleum energy.
To me a key question is around whether we’d sooner use petroleum energy coming from countries and locations with better human rights records.
I think we need to figure out how we can quantifiably compare the human rights/petroleum energy issues so we can have a rational discussion about this dimension.
On Global Security
I’m probably in a bit over my head on this issue, but, on the simplistic side, when I hear that ISIS is funded by millions of dollars/day of petroleum revenue I think that isn’t a good thing.
When I see the conflict all over Syria and Iraq that, as I understand it, is financed by if not fueled by petroleum, I think that is not a good thing.
There may be other relevant dimensions but these are three key ones.
Overall, I believe we are better off using petroleum energy that has less, rather than more environmental impact in its production and transport and that comes from more stable countries with better human rights records.
Intuitively I feel that this means developing the oil sands but I would really like to see some research and informed debate around it.
Surely it isn’t asking too much of industry, government, NGOs and celebrities to be supportive or informed and rational debate around such an important issue?
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