19 February 2008

Damage Control

Oilpatch new international whipping boy

A new image of Canada--and particularly Alberta -- is taking hold abroad, and it's not a pretty one. Canada is increasingly being trashed as an environmental bum in highly unflattering portrayals in foreign media, while the oilsands deposits are painted as a freak show where Aboriginals are poisoned and the boreal forest wiped out. While the debate in Canada about the merits of the oilsands has been raging for years, in contexts as diverse as climate change, energy security, wealth and power redistribution within the country and Alberta, it's only in recent months that the deposits have been portrayed internationally as a global environmental catastrophe. Indeed, they appear to be emerging as the new staple of the environmental movement, alongside causes like stopping the seal hunt and the destruction of the rain forest, though, given their huge importance to Canada's economy, the implications of such a campaign are on a grander scale. Greg Stringham, vp at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, called the trend "a new level of awareness," of the oilsands. "The first round of awareness was, wow, it's really big. We saw the international attention and people saying it's second in size to Saudi Arabia, and that led to Washington paying attention, too. Following that we knew there would be a new wave based on the environmental impact." CAPP has made the environmental impact of the oilsands its major topic of communication this year, Stringham said.

Part of the communication strategy is to debunk what is being said as inaccurate. Far from being a huge "global" source of greenhouse gases, the oilsands produce 4% of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation accounts for 27%, electricity and heat 18%, oil and gas without oilsands 19%, other industries 14%, agriculture 8%. In a global context, the oilsands are responsible for 0.1% of global emissions, while the US as a whole is responsible for 21%, China for 20% and Europe for 17%, according to CAAP. Only 20% of the deposits are close enough to the surface that they can be mined, while the rest is and will be produced through thermal processes or new technologies with far less surface impact. BP's oilsands project would use thermal technology, not building a mine. Contrary to the suggestion that development is moving ahead unfettered, industry and governments are making huge commitments to reduce their carbon footprint, whether through carbon capture and storage or developing new extraction technologies that require less energy. Canadians involved in the business say the emerging portrait is so unfair it's insulting to the country and its environmental record. "As a Canadian, to read in European newspapers that we are a laggard on the environment is offensive," said Bob Skinner, Calgary-based vp at StatoilHydro, the Norwegian global leader in carbon capture and storage that entered the oilsands business last year. "Canada has been a leader in acid rain, migratory birds, the species at risk, getting lead out of gasoline, DDT, dealing with ozone depletion, all these things. If you look at the history, [these changes] were not started in Europe, they were started in North America."
(National Post 080219)

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