4 Oct 2011

Yes, It IS Ethical Oil

Posted by Helaine Becker

Last month, Saudi Arabia made headlines in Canada when it tried to prevent the non-profit advocacy group, Ethical Oil, from running ads in support of Canada’s oil sands. Saudi Arabia apparently didn’t like how the TV spots highlighted the Saudis’ abysmal record re human rights. (Read more here.)
Less than a week later, the oil sands were in the news again, this time receiving plaudits from a surprising source: Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace. Moore said, “oilsands development is necessary and often leaves the production sites in better environmental shape than they were before oil was taken from the land.” (Read more here.)
I live a world away from Alberta, in posh, ivory-tower Toronto. It's hard to really know the truth about the oil sands/tar sands here (take your pick of the terminology; which you call it reveals your attitude, pro or con). I can tell you, though, that the Lululemons in my 'hood unanimously and vociferously decry them (but then drive off in their X5s).

As a science writer, I know the world is not a chic but simplistic black-and-white. I know, for example, that as feel-good as it is to tsk tsk fossil fuels, I wouldn’t  - couldn’t - live in Canada without oil. I’m fond of my furnace come October. So until that magic day when we can switch over entirely to non-carbon fuel sources, I’m going to have to accept that oil and I are partners in the Canadian experiment.
But that’s not to say I’m not uneasy about it. It’s also why I jumped at the chance to see the oil sands for myself last June. As part of the Canadian Science Writers Association’s annual meeting, a trip to Fort MacMurray was offered. I signed up pronto.
What I wanted to know was, “What is the real impact of the mining operations on the environment? Is it really “dirty oil,” as opponents claim? What are companies doing to minimize the environmental impact? And what, really, are our alternatives?”
The day was warm as we boarded the private plane provided by Connacher Oil and Gas, one of the gazillion oil companies based in Fort MacMurray. Connacher is at the forefront of in situ mining, a method of oil recovery that only became viable in the last decade. Traditionally, oil sands were obtained through open pit mining – huge quantities of the bitumen-rich soils were scraped off the surface of the land for later extraction. This process certainly left large areas of the landscape in bad shape, and potentially exposed populations downstream to toxic wastes.
Only a fraction of the oil sands – those that lay on the surface –could be mined this way. But much greater quantities of oil – unbelievably huge reservoirs that make the Middle East's reserves look like duck puddles – remained inaccessible. Technology to access them simply did not exist until the 1980s, when a technique called SagD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) was developed and proven. With SagD, hot water is pumped into underground reservoirs that contain the thick, tarry oil sands. The steam loosens the tar, enabling it to be pumped up to the surface, where it can then be refined.

The Connacher team at the well pad
SagD seems to have a much more limited impact on the environment than traditional open pit mining. The footprint of the wellpad is tiny; to my eye, about the size of an average high school gym. The official bumpf says the pads cover 85-90% less surface area than old style mines. The Connacher plant also recycles over 90% of the  water used to make the steam, using only non-potable water; it doesn’t draw water from the nearby surface water or rivers. The company also  generates its own energy, making it largely independent of the power grid.
I have to say I was impressed by the facilities we toured and the caliber of the Connacher staff we met. Like most Canadians, the engineers at Connacher were concerned with the environment, and proudly detailed for us the programs they had in place to ensure as little disruption as possible to the wildlife of the area, and the environment overall.
Our guides were not given an easy ride by our group of science professionals and journalists, which included Jay Ingram, longtime host of Daily Planet, Susan Eaton, geologist, geophysicist and committed conservationist, and award-winning science journalist Peter McMahon. They were given tough questions to answer, and were not allowed to avoid them or slide away with easy generalities. Is SagD perfect? Of course not. It still is releasing carbon into our atmosphere, which we all know is damaging. And there are still local environmental concerns that need to be addressed with stricter regulations and monitoring.
After the visit to Ft. MacMurray, the issues around the oil sands were clearer in my mind. Like Patrick Moore, I now believe that Canada, as a nation, cannot, and should not, put a stop to oil sands extraction in Alberta. We simply have no alternatives to oil yet.  Until we do, we have to get our oil from somewhere. Like the folks at Ethical Oil say, where would you rather get your oil, from Canadians who are regulated and who make the effort to obtain the oil in the cleanest possible way (no matter if we don’t always reach nirvanic perfection, at least we are trying – can you say the same about Venezuela?)? Or would you rather buy your fuel from a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, or vote, or get stoned to death if they look at a man that isn’t their relative?
Not me. I’m going to continue to use as little fossil fuel as I can, because reducing its use is good for everybody. But until I can honestly live without fossil fuels, I’m going to support the firms and countries that are more in line with my values of environmental conservation and human rights. That means Canadian oil.

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