Dirty Oil And Journalism

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

Journalism hysteria, a deadly disease, has begun to infect the reports on Alberta’s oilsands with the same inflammatory bias and misleading prejudice one sees in the slanted reports on climate change and politics.

In the Calgary Herald article, “Oilsands the poster child of bad oil; Has the mythology overtaken the truth?” by Kelly Cryderman (Nov. 2), there is a list of recent books with titles that give away their premeditated conclusions: Toxic Alberta, H2Oil, The Tarsands: The Selling of Alberta, Burn Up, Pay Dirt, To the Tarsands and Downstream, Stupid to the Last Drop, Tarsands Showdown, The Tyranny of Oil, Canada in a Warming World, Death by a Thousand Cuts.

It’s instructive — in this era of journalistic unreasonableness — to note that the Herald could not find one book that was favourable to the oilsands — an extraordinary geological and engineering operation that pumps about $3.7 billion per year into the Alberta treasury. Even more unsettling were the sententious comments of the anti-oilsands authors who, when asked about their motivation to write such one-sided dreck, said they were doing it because they were “thinking of their kids.” For commercial writers and would-be boffins to wrap their prejudice in such high-sounding tripe is disingenuous; they do not write in support of a cause; they write in chase of a cheque.

In the Herald review, one notes the following silly statements, followed by comments from the Alberta Oilsands Fact Sheet:

1. Andrew Weaver, professor, University of Victoria, says the problem with the oilsands is the “exploitation of enormous quantities of river and underground water.” COMMENT: (a) the official provincial Athabasca river-water license is for only 1.8 per cent of the river’s annual flow and the oilsands industry has never used even one per cent, and (b) counting both river water and underground water (much of which is saline and not potable), the oilsands industry captures and recycles more than 90 per cent of the water it uses.

2. Article Picture: accompanying the Herald review is the usual misleading photograph of a large Athabasca stack smoking away with the caption, “Extracting oilsands oil produces significantly more emissions than conventional processes.” COMMENT: (a) the smoke coming out of the stack, which the casual reader may innocently think is CO2, is mostly water vapour because the CO2, if present, is present in very small quantities and is colourless and invisible, and (b) based on the typical Canadian oilsands crude oil blend, the full-cycle emissions from using oilsands oil are, to be sure, more than conventional oil but still fairly close to the full-cycle emissions from other conventional oil brands: 15 per cent more than Edmonton par, only nine per cent more than Saudi Arabia, eight per cent more than Mexico, six per cent more than Nigeria, but three per cent less than Venezuela;

3. Andrew Weaver says GHG emissions are a “problem with the oilsands.” COMMENT: the annual GHG emissions from the oilsands operations are far less than the emissions from Alberta’s coal-burning electrical industry.

4. Weaver says the oilsands leave “a horrible toxic sludge in the ponds.” COMMENT: under ERCB rules, nobody is allowed to leave — nor have they ever left — a horrible toxic sludge in the ponds. The pond lands are ultimately reclaimed and returned to Alberta in as good a condition as when the oilsands leases were first issued. This is unlike Weaver’s hometown, that still dumps about one-million barrels of untreated, raw sewage into the Juan de Fuca Straits — each day. Talk about horrible toxic sludge.

5. Al Gore claims that for every barrel of oilsands oil it requires enough natural gas to heat an average Alberta home for four days. COMMENT: his data is wrong — Alberta Energy says it requires enough natural gas to heat an average Alberta home for 2.85 days, or 40 per cent less than Gore claims. In any event, as in all industrial processes, it requires energy to produce a product, such as razor blades, and the test is the energy balance.

6. Dead ducks: the article made the usual de rigueur reference to the now-famous 500 dead ducks. COMMENT: for perspective’s sake, nowhere in the article is it revealed, for example, that 42,000 bird deaths a year are caused by windmills in North America, about 800 birds per week.

7. Allan Adam, Chief, Chipewyan: Adam says there are “no oilsands regulatory processes in place to protect the environment.” COMMENT: this is a monster whopper. The ERCB has a multitude of regulatory processes that govern what industry must do from the issuance of the first lease until the issuance of the last reclamation certificate;

8. The article says books continue to argue that the Alberta oilsands cover an area the size of Florida. COMMENT: this is a highly misleading exaggeration, and purposely so, which is the point of “gotcha” journalism these days. Florida has an area of 42-million acres. The three Alberta oilsands and heavy-oil areas comprise 36 million acres, of which the ERCB rates only 7.5 million acres as “developable” at today’s prices and with today’s technology. Of this amount, only 832,000 acres can be mined and only 131,000 acres are being mined today, which is less than the area of Calgary.

9. Eddy Moretti, Toxic Alberta: this TV producer/director stated in his Toxic Alberta film that the GHG emissions from Alberta’s oilsands were “responsible for 2/3 of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” which is totally false — they are responsible for only five per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions. Moretti later admitted he was wrong, but the damage was done.

It all gets very discouraging because hardly anybody appears content to argue the facts.

Let’s be clear: the oilsands are big and the initial change to the surface is profound, as it is in any mining operation, but the area being worked is less than the area of Calgary, the fraction of the Alberta boreal forest that is mined is less than one per cent of the forest area, the amount of river water used is less than one per cent of the river’s annual flow, the amount of gas used is less than 1 Mcf per barrel of bitumen produced, the GHG emissions are only five per cent of Canada’s emissions and the surface land, once used, is reclaimed by regulation and returned to the province for other uses by Alberta society.

The oil is not dirty, journalism just makes it seem so.

J. Richard Harris is a professional geologist and is an independent oil and gas consultant in Calgary.