A green light for greener oilsands

Alberta's oilsands have been exploited for half a century already. But it is only during the past decade, as production grew to a large scale, that they have become the source of constant environmental criticism.

There are basically three positions on what we should do with the oilsands – and each choice has very unequal support among the Canadians, as revealed in a Leger Marketing recently released survey sponsored by my organization.

A small minority of Canadians – 8% – believe that the environmental damages caused by this industry are unbearable and they would like to stop the development of the oilsands altogether. At the other extreme, a similar proportion Canadians would like us to focus on maximizing the economic development of the oilsands, almost regardless of environmental consequences.

However, the vast majority of Canadians – 72% – hold the more moderate and also more realistic position: let's develop the oilsands, as long as a continuous effort is being made to mitigate their environmental impact.

The good news is that's actually what's been going on since the first extraction activities began, although you wouldn't know it if you only read the alarmist reports from some environmental groups. On that specific note, it's interesting to note that 52% of Canadians strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that "several environmental lobbies are too radical," while only 27% somewhat or strongly disagree with it, the remaining of the respondents feel that they "don't know if this claim is true or false."

It's easy to be shocked when you see spectacular images of huge open-pit mines where forests used to stand. Since everything is huge in this industry, we tend to conclude that the environmental damage is also huge.

But knowing a few basic facts changes the perspective.

Surface mining is actually concentrated within only 3% of the oilsands area. And when mining activities are over, these areas are returned to nature and replaced by wetlands and forests.

The tailing ponds, where the still-dirty sand is left to settle after most of the bitumen has been removed, work much better and faster today than they did 20 years ago. Some experts believe they could even disappear thanks to new technologies in the coming years.

Most oilsands – 80% of reserves – are too deep to be mined. In this case, the bitumen is recovered by drilling underground, which has little impact on the surrounding environment. Also, no tailing ponds are required for this method of recovery because sand remains on the ground.

As for water, more than 70% of it – as much as 90% in some cases – is being recycled.

The industry is also better at controlling the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted for each barrel produced, with a 26-29% reduction over the past two decades.

When informed of these efforts to reduce the oilsands' environmental impact, half of Canadians polled by Leger said that it changed their perception in a positive direction.

Those are only some of the innovations that have been, or are currently being, developed.

The bottom line is this: the oilsands industry is constantly becoming greener. It truly deserves getting Canadians' green light to continue to enrich us all.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.

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