Is There Really a McMurray Ethical Dilemma?

The labeling of the Athabasca Oilsands as “Dirty Oil” is prevalent in North America and Europe. Media coverage within Canada has been reasonably balanced, but there is plenty of rhetoric to be heard both here and abroad. I have heard statements, for example on CBC Radio this morning, that are unnecessarily inflammatory. The interviewee suggested that if we burn all the oil in the oilsands, then we are sealing the Earth’s fate. That is silly, because the statement applies to burning crude oil in general. You could equally say the same thing about burning all the crude in Saudi Arabia.

Take a step back. Yes, bitumen requires more carbon intensity to turn into synthetic crude. But, should anyone really believe that burning normal crude oil is somehow more environmentally friendly? Are people forgetting that conventional crude has been involved in far more substantial environmental incidents than can be ascribed to McMurray bitumen? Consider Deep Horizon, the Exxon Valdez, the oil fires of Kuwait (intentional, mind you), and Ixtoc 1. How about the oil-withdrawal-associated subsidence near Los Angeles? Hmmm… or Rainbow Pipelines 2011 spill in Alberta, and so on. And think about the volume of conventional crude produced. It is a much larger polluter of the environment.

I would further add that although mining of the oilsands comes with an obvious set of environmental threats, are we comfortable rebuking oilsands mines when other types of mining activities produce far more polluting tailings (for example lead-zinc, iron, or copper) and often go largely unnoticed (see Rio Tinto Estuary Spain: 5000 years of pollution: in Environmental Geology #39 in September 2000) (although the Rio Tinto example has indeed been well covered).

The real issue is that there is a huge market for crude oil as an inexpensive and transportable source of energy. At this point, economic alternatives are still on the horizon and the development of crude-oil resources is a reality.

You can add to the above—and it has been stated many times before—that at least the revenue from bitumen trickles down to the people in Canada. The oilsands support a vibrant and educated work force. And Americans reap the economic benefits of the McMurray deposit as well (many American Companies own rights to mine or steam oilsand and I know many Americans who work in Calgary and Fort McMurray as a result of their interests). Also, France (Total), Norway (Statoil), China, and Britain (BP) posses important rights to bitumen resources, that benefit their domestic economies. Other than the North Sea, Australia and the Gulf Coast, you would have trouble convincing me that oil wealth has been shared as effectively in other important oil provinces.


Much of the talk in Alberta centers around the two proposed pipelines intended for the shipping of bitumen out-of-country. Broadly, two issues are discussed. Outside of Alberta, the concerns revolve around environmental issues, mostly those associated with oil spills (pipeline leaks). Within Alberta we should be asking ourselves if we really want to ship unrefined bitumen outside of our borders.

Regarding environmental concerns: these are legitimate. Pipelines do leak. Nearly all pipeline pumping stations are characterized by very small spills due to equipment leakage and maintenance spillage. Over time these add up. More catastrophic spills are the result of pipeline pressure coupled to corrosion of the pipe, which can lead to pipe failure. One would think that with modern materials and pressure-sensing equipment… not to mention centralized computer monitoring stations, that pipeline spills could be eliminated. The reality is that pipeline spills still occur. An important truth of pipeline spills is that they tend to be more spatially limited and smaller in scale than offshore spills. Is this yet another “to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs” issue?

Shipping bitumen out of Alberta is definitely erosive to future industrial expansion in Alberta. Every refinery we feed is one refinery less in Alberta. Supporters can point to labor shortages in Alberta, protecting ourselves from industrial pollution, and the presence of oil-starved refineries in the USA. Fair enough. But where I come from, the availability of more (highly paid) local jobs is considered to be a good thing. At least regarding the shipping of oil to the USA, a major driver is that the bitumen producers in part own the proposed refinery destinations. I get that. An economic decision on their part. But, not an economic decision on Albertan’s behalf.