Alberta’s oilsands industry isn’t the energy bad-boy that many people believe it to be, said Oil Sands Development Group president Don Thompson during a St. Albert visit on Saturday.
Thompson heads an industry association comprised of 26 oilsands developers. Speaking at the annual general meeting of the St. Albert Progressive Conservative Constituency Association, Thompson said oilsands development doesn’t cover as much area as people think, nor does it contribute the greenhouse gases or use as much water as people think.
“To put oilsands disturbance in context, in more than 40 years, we’ve managed to disturb one one-hundredth of one per cent of the boreal forest, 530 square kilometres,” Thompson said. “That 530 square kilometres has provided 60 per cent of Canada’s energy supply.”
It’s common knowledge that the oilsands cover an area the size of Florida, or 140,200 square kilometres, he said. However, what isn’t so well known is that the mineable portion of this area is just 2.5 per cent, or about the size of Cape Canaveral.
More than 80 per cent of the reserves contained in the oilsands are too deep for open pit mining so can only be extracted through in-situ drilling. This process has a similar environmental impact as conventional oil drilling and is becoming increasingly less demanding on input energy and water, he said.
Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, the oilsands account for less than five per cent of Canada’s output and less than 0.1 per cent of total global output, he said.
“I want people to hear a balanced story about the oilsands. Yes, we disturb land but we’re also reclaiming it,” Thompson said. “Our greenhouse gas emissions footprint is actually not as large as people make out.”
Thompson is a St. Albert resident but spends most of his time on the road delivering the oilsands message across North America. Oilsands companies continue to pour billions into improving their extraction methods to make them more efficient users of energy and water and reduce emissions, he said.
As examples, he cited Syncrude’s spending of $1.6 billion to add flu gas desulphurization on its plant to remove sulphur dioxide from its smokestack emissions. Also, naptha hydrocarbon liquids that used to escape into tailings ponds are now captured in recovery units. And several companies now have dry tailings processes in development.
“I know that we will develop new technologies that continue to drive improvement,” Thompson said. “One of the biggest threats, though, that we face is the loss of our social license to operate.”
Dave Burkhart, oilsands advisor for the St. Albert office of the World Wildlife Fund, said the oilsands industry is trying desperately to clean up its dirty image.
“I know they have an image problem and I think it’s based in reality,” said Burkhart, a former federal NDP candidate, “there are problems with the development, serious problems.”
Burkhart alluded to news that emerged in December that only two of nine oilsands developments would be able to meet new Energy Resources Conservation Board guidelines for tailings ponds within a government imposed deadline.
“If they’re going to clean up their mess they should apply more resources toward doing that rather than just spinning the story,” he said.