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.

24 thoughts on “Is There Really a McMurray Ethical Dilemma?”

  1. environmental labeling of the oilsands is totally predatory. I’m pretty sure if we going to compare environmental scars between oilsands mines and mineral mines, we could easily head to butte Montana and take a peek at a disgusting scar on earth in the form of a giant open pit mine, that has never been restored to its natural state, or any type of lasting legacy to benefit the people or the environment. while if I recall correctly I believe it was Syncrude that has restored it’s first open pit mine into a vibrant wetland, that blends with the surrounding ecosystem? These environmental wagon jumpers don’t look at the end result, they just look at the aerial photos of today, with little to no regard for the true end result. Why pick on the oilsands? how many fish stocks are dying off due to hydro dams on their breeding runs, or bird kill off due to California wind farms? there are plenty of industries to pick on, but they pick ours since we sat back and let them breed doubt about our industry, now we have to set the record straight.

  2. You are absolutely correct, Patrick, that Syncrude was issued the first-ever oil sands land reclamation certificate, which was granted in 2008. And that raises the excellent point that, beyond pointing the finger at other offending industries, it’s extremely important to draw attention to the many efforts being made by oil companies to mitigate damages in the oil sands. Reclamation is actually legislated by the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, which requires oil companies to return the land to “an equivalent land capability” as well as provide security equivalent to the full-cost of reclamation; however, there are also unlegislated actions which the oil companies have undertaken of their own volition. For example, the development of in situ technologies for extraction from the oil sands (such as SAGD, CSS, and VAPEX) was completely industry driven, and these require much less land area to be disturbed for the same amount of bitumen. According to industry websites, it is estimated that about 80% of the oil sands can be exploited by these lower impact methods. Fair enough, these technologies were developed for the purpose of being able to effectively extract bitumen from unfeasible mining locations, but companies are constantly trying to improve on these technologies and year over year make them less water and energy intensive. The fact is that, until an effective and reliable means to provide the global energy requirements is met, oil is a “necessary evil” and the oil sands constitute an important source. The oil sands certainly aren’t perfect but perhaps energies would be better spent on trying to make them better and better rather than fighting them tooth and nail.

    People are much better at latching onto the popular views of the day than they are at taking the time to truly understand the central issues in a controversy. A lot of what is said about the oil sands is nothing more than political grandstanding and attention seeking behaviour by government officials and other individuals craving the favour of a largely ignorant populace. Let’s face it, if the polls showed that even 51% of the voting public was sympathetic to the oil companies’ plight, I’m sure politicians would be singing a different tune. And in recent years, news shows have become little more than sensationalistic reporting intended to capture viewers’ attention—it’s a lot easier to get people excited with stories about the big bad oil company than it is with fair and balanced views on the issue. I think the onus is on each and every one of us to find out as much as we can about the oilsands—not only the benefits but also the risks—and to spread that information through frank and honest discussions, such as this blog.

    1. you are a gem Gareth! Typically seal kissing tree huggers pick the easy target to prey on. If they actually had substance they would be going after irresponsible exploiters instead of our thankfully responsible oilsand industry. These groups give up on the hard battles and fight tooth and nail on the for the easy ones. I remember as a child hearing all about ivory poachers in Africa and gold panning in the amazon rivers using mercury. Why is it today that these special interest groups no longer voice these truly destructive issues? I’m pretty these destructive events still take place today, I have my doubts that poaching for ivory has just stopped, nor that people are still extracting gold using poisonous substances in amazon rivers? All these people do is jump from wagon to wagon in order to get more special interest finding and donations, then once things tail off they jump ship and begin to attack another industry. Lets get to the point of global warming! to seriously keep this planet from heading down a path of global warming we would have needed to go back to the beginning of the industrial revolution and keep it from happening. Personally I think that there is no way to stop global warming, nor a way to slow it. Global warming/cooling cycles can be traced back through Earths history. we have been disturbing the atmospheric balance for hundreds of years. just think of all the buried carbon in sedimentary formations today, then look back in time to before earth had any carbon stores. Im pretty sure there is exponentially more carbon stores today, than say in the late Cambrian. Earth supported life in the Cambrian with completely different atmospheric chemistry’s, as it will proceed to do in the future. What is done is done, we can’t make an open chemical reaction stop, that is unless we want to balance it with a more sinister evil. Maybe these groups would like us to burn copious amounts of coal minus the sulfur scrubbers, this in turn would allow for the creation of sulfur dioxide which in turn has high reflective properties, which in turn will cool the planet, except we would produce acid rain, thus killing virtually all forested areas on the planet. They say that the oilsands are carbon intensive and damage the hydrological cycle, well there is a way around that. I wonder what these groups would thing if our oil industry decided to experiment with thermo-nuclear cooking of these deposits? drill a series of wells, insert nuclear devices and ignite, this requires no burning of natural gas, or use of water. The immediate oil in the epicenter will be converted to gas adding reservoir pressure, and the remaining oil in the region will be heated, which could cause in-situ separation between the sand and the oil? This kind of process would allow us to create the largest conventional reservoirs on the planet. The kicker is that this would create another front for these groups to target. Environmental groups of today are gutless shadows of what they were when they were the grassroot movements of the 80’s and 90’s. Back in the day these groups didn’t fight what was needed, but what was wrong, to me cutting down the Amazon rainforest to produce lousy grazing/farmland is wrong, producing oil that has no current alternative to power the global economy is necessary.

  3. Okay! These are entertaining… and I like your enthusiasm. But… let’s make sure we try to see both sides of the argument where possible. If that is not possible, then go ahead and post anyway. I am very curious to see how the class as a whole sees these issues.

  4. As has been mentioned before, I don’t think there is a better place to do business than in Alberta. The diverse scope of companies from around the world with working interest in the oil sands is a testament to this. Look at BP who suffered a devastating set-back from Horizon and has currently shuffled all of their Canadian assets entirely to the oil sands. Total as an example has been criticized by environmentalist groups for ages and has a strong position moving forward in Canadian oil sands.

    This transparency in oil sands operations has been exploited by environmentalist groups because it’s an easy target. And to be perfectly honest – I’m okay with that. If guys like Suzuki can help keep oil and gas companies honest and striving for the most efficient and environmentally responsible technologies that’s great for Alberta and the world. However, it becomes a problem when over-exaggerated statements set the precedent for an ill-informed public opinion. That’s why the growing number of pro-oil sands advertising is essential and welcomed by myself (though Cenovus needs to invest in another commercial..).

    The thirst for transportable energy will continue and statements such as Hansen’s ‘game over for climate’ (about development of oil sands) are laughable. What doesn’t come from us, WILL be picked up by (for example) OPEC nations – who are quite content with their current environmental policy (unknown?). I know where I would want to do business, in a STABLE environment striving for perpetual innovation capable of satisfying a large portion of the worlds energy needs.

    The international distribution of wealth is undeniable – which raises another important question. At what point does international investment become a problem for Canadian resource management and longevity? How much more foreign capital do we need to move forward with oil sands (and other o&g) exploitation? The ECRB is great, and we are starting to see government intervention in reviewing acquisitions by foreign companies (such as Sinopec). I’m interested and admittedly uneducated in the extent of government intervention in the past, and what to expect moving forward. I suppose foreign capital is necessary for us to move forward with future exploration projects, and we remain attractive because of existing infrastructure already in place.

  5. The biggest issue I have with is that environmental groups label our oil as “dirty” while not discussing how the US and Canada will meet their oil needs without the oil sands. As you said oil is a neccessary (and hopefully temporary) evil and people aren’t going to suddenly give up their gas-guzzling cars and trucks unless an economically viable option is presented to them.

    So, the US and Canada, without the tar sands, would have to export their oil from places like Nigeria (which, despite vast oil reserves, has one of the poorest populations in the world due to government corruption/civil war) and Saudi Arabia (whose oil revenues have, in the past at least, gotten into the hands of terrorist sympathizers).

    In essence, environmental protection groups are suggesting that the plight of millions of people is less important than the extra energy used to refine our oil which is completely ridiculous.

    1. The environmental groups keep industry honest. It is up to you to make sure people have access to your opinion as well.

      1. It seems lately that these groups go to outrageous extremes when painting the oilsands red. These days it seems that many of these groups use uninformed public opinion as the platform for their cause. I think they do this just to bolster their finances buy riding the wave of public opinion, and fueling the untruths. It would be nice, if more of these hollow groups would actually go and conduct studies themselves. What ever happened to the small interest groups that went out and produced hard facts themselves, to keep federal and/or provincial studies truthful? From media these days, it seems that these groups take small bits of bad and turn them into the bane of Earths existence. Since these groups demand industry transparency, then shouldn’t the coin be double sided? These groups are damaging their image in the long term, for their sake, they need to open up and put everything on the table as well.

        1. I don’t know about that. I think they have a role, and scientists should understand their own role better than they seem to.

        2. We need the extremists to raise public awareness. Their transparency lies within the fact that we are all capable of doing our own research on the issue, and as scientists it is our job to explore both sides without bias.

        3. Alastair,Thanks for reading as aawyls. I agree in the short term, but I think in both cases the oilsands industry and the green energy industry could suffer. If voters start thinking that green energy aawyls means half as much power for twice as much money then the damage could be just as profound as the cost of dirty oil to the oil sands industry. The difference I find is that if you are speaking up against FIT-type policies, people tend to put you in a box as being either anti-environment or NIMBY-ist. I would not want a wind turbine in my backyard, but I do think there is a growing place for renewable power on the grid and in our energy mix, and so to have people not willing to change their ways of thinking b/c one government over-cooked it a little would be sad.I am not a strategies, but I think that making promises you can’t keep can come back to haunt you. Again, the oil sands promises are pertinent here. If the Alberta government really thinks that emissions per barrel will continue to shrink, why are they so worried about low carbon fuel standards? The world’s oil mix is not getting less emissions-intensive over time, so we shouldn’t have anything to worry about if we are going to keep improving here, right? It’s the same for renewable power. If there will be grid parity in 10 years, let’s wait 10 years before investing in assets that live for 20 or 30 years, and before locking in to paying 10 times the grid price for the next 30 years.Always appreciate your comments.andrew

    2. Great post.Perhaps there is another leossn to be learned here? A leossn for greens to follow the AB oil industry example; invest as fast as possible while the going FIT is good, and deal with the consequences in the future.I think it’s in the AB oil industry’s interest (but perhaps not the Gov’s) to build as fast as possible. It’s much easier to build quickly and then defend current facilities and jobs in the face of criticism, than to go slow and advocate for expansion later if public perception changes.Most fallout over developing too fast hits the government not a company’s bottom line, and AB has too much invested for the oil industry to significantly lose its social license to operate it’s current facilities. So for companies; build fast, build now, and fight off the public and environmentalists later.In a similar vein it may be in the interests of green advocates to push for even poorly designed FITs, or make claims (solar power parity next year!) that they know is likely wrong. Convince the public to support as much green investment as possible, lock it in, and weather any following public relations or public opinion storms. Under this approach, hopefully people will adjust to the new prices (how much does 82c/kWh averaged with the majority of low cost conventional power really increase the bill?), criticism will wane, and Ontario will be left with a nascent green power industry. Repeat.If people have short enough memories, then one in the hand is better than two in the bush, and green energy advocates should be in favour of even poorly planned FITs.

  6. Well, I’m pretty sure from what I know that the major reasons for the overblown ethical dilemma over the Oil sands is hype from the media, and the continuous stream of attention through pictures and biased comments over these areas. All of the incidents mentioned in the first post (besides kuwait) were accidents, and people seem to forgive and forget a lot more freely than with something that is continual and ongoing.

    In regards to media involvement, one picture of the tailing ponds is enough to convince most people that the oil sands are going to be the end the world, when really they have very little background information on what is happening. It makes people feel good to fight for something that they feel is right, and advocating against the oil sands is just one of the hot topics in the media and the internet today making it easy for people to stand behind.

    That being said, there needs to be people like this in the world to show these companies that there is a voice to keep them somewhat in line from walking all over everything without consequence.

    Personally I stand behind the oil sands. I live in Alberta, I drive a car, I use electricity. My life style is totally dependent on the burning of crude oil.

    What about burning all of this oil, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and “Sealing the worlds fate”? Well, the earth is a dynamic place. If we are responsible or not for accelerating the global CO2 levels, in the long run it is entirely out of our control. Species go extinct, global temperatures change, sea levels rise and fall with or without us. A super volcano could erupt tomorrow and release more green house gasses than we ever have. People say that we want to protect the planet for future generations, but what about the generation after that, or the generation after that? Eventually someone is going to have to deal with drastically different global conditions even if we never burned any fossil fuels. The only thing I can really stand behind is a reduction in pollution on the face of the planet, and that is one thing that most first world exploration companies are taking care of with reclamation projects.

  7. Why should environmentalist look at the issue any differently than they are doing right now? For obvious reasons, I don’t see oil sands companies advertising the negative effects of the oil sands. Just as in politics, it is healthy for any important issue to have a strong debate; this acts as a control on development…I wouldn’t want to imagine any resource exploitation operation without controls on environmental impact. Also, as previously mentioned by Graham, the debate helps raise awareness to the public on issues pertaining to the oil sands. Sure, its easy to have an opinion, but as scientists it is more important that we pick out the facts from both sides of the argument, and keep an open mind. It is therefore important that the ethics of the oils sands continue to be debated (by the “extremists”) so that we can pick up the facts and judge them critically.

  8. I do not believe that the oil sands are “dirty oil” but I do believe that continued research should go into improving extraction and reclamation process after an area has been used up of resources. In the past oil companies would keep new environmental discoveries to themselves but now the companies are sharing these new ideas with each other so oil sands as a whole can have a better image. I think that since the oil sands will only grow in the next 25 years it is important for these companies to continue research and development of better techniques so that this “dirty oil” image can one day be lifted.

    1. I agree completely! The better image the oil sands makes for themselves and the more effort they put into environmental research the better. The more effort the oil sands put into technological research will show extremist groups that they are being listened to, which give everyone a better chance of success with less headache for both groups.

    2. Question 2: two measures are nedeed i) A more aggressive GHG reduction target, coupled with access to out-of-province offsets to keep the costs down; ii) Get a CCS facility built rather than just talking about it. Question 3: Measures listed above will help with access to foreign markets particularly America’s. The offsets are useful insofar as they can cost-effectively bring down the lifecycle emissions of oil sands exports to equivalent levels other US imports. This way, the GHG intensive nature of Oil Sands production, relative to substitutes, is no longer a point critics can dwell upon this helps with things like XL approval and compliance with state-level LCFS regs. Additional measures are nedeed like renewable energy subsidies. Alberta has great wind resources and the best solar resources in Canada. A few cents on rate-payer bills can finance the deployment. Critics will have a very hard time pointing fingers at Albertan oil sands if they see solar panels and wind turbines dotting the landscape. Additionally, given Alberta’s clout in Ottawa, they are also well positioned to influence the Federal Gov’t (and therefore the rest of Canada) to bankroll part of the cost. In America, the Feds pay 30% of the capex of renewable energy projects plus generous accelerated depreciation treatment, but the states who add the state level subsidy to get the projects over the investment hurdle garner most of the positive publicity.

  9. It is important to have constructive criticism of oilsands development. It is not that the oilsands are responsible for the doom of the environment, but there are certainly aspects that could be improved upon and need to be monitored, such as water quality. Environmental groups do have a role in pointing out problems that can be improved upon.

    Oilsands development is so large in the media because it is a new type of development. Yes, there have been larger environmental disasters with conventional crude, but these were accidents, and the risk of such accidents occurring were not unknown. Mining may produce much more potent tailings ponds, but they are a known side effect of mining. Tailings ponds are a recent introduction to the oil and gas industry as a result of oilsands development. Such new developments and unknown factors can create fear surrounding development, as clearly seen in some of the media. However, because oil sands development at such a scale is new, and occurring in an open society, Alberta has the opportunity to create a standard for oil sands development worldwide. The spotlight is on Fort McMurray, and any other development of oilsands deposits worldwide will be measured against the standards set out by Alberta.

  10. Labelling the oil sands as dirty oil seems a bit misleading to me. Is there really such thing as clean oil? If a person were to go through and collect all the data on emissions, land disturbance, probability of accidents and so on, I feel the oil sands would have the same environmental impact as any other source of oil we choose to burn, if not less. Think of all the fuel that would be wastefully consumed importing all of our oil from overseas on tankers if we were to choose that route instead of producing it domestically.

    Burning of fossil fuels is absolutely essential to meet our energy needs and I fully support all the oil sands projects, however future sustainability is key and needs to be taken more seriously as environmentalists do have some merit behind the issues they bring up. Business strategies are based on expansion of markets and are expected to grow each quarter, although we live on a planet with finite oil reserves as well as eventually, a finite amount of people capable of surviving here (finite market size). Therefore, this idea of infinite business growth is unrealistic. If society focuses on efficient use of oil rather than burning as much of it as we can as fast as possible, many environmental and social problems can be significantly reduced. Think for example if North America were to construct a high speed rail network similar to that built in Europe, capable of transporting people as well as goods while we were still in the oil boom phase. Not only would this create tons of jobs and increase the market for oil consumption in the present day through construction and maintenance of such a project, but by the time it was completed, we could be significantly less dependent on oil and still able to enjoy a high quality of life, even if the boom did start to bust. Using what we have responsibly is essential and if we begin taking steps now toward sustainability, we can not only leave future generations a cleaner environment but also with one in close proximity of abundant easy to access hydrocarbons instead of forcing them to seek expensive, remote regions such as the far north for energy. It all starts with investing in future energy solutions and infrastructure now with our oil sands energy and prosperity while it’s still cheap and before it’s absolutely essential to do so.

  11. As much as I enjoy the innovation and career opportunities of the oil and gas industry, Isn’t it a little sad that we will go to such great lengths to sustain our oil thirsty society? If as much money and time was put into finding a renewable energy source as oil and gas companies spend on production and exploration the world’s energy crisis would be much closer to an end. Eventually we will run out….just throwing that out there.

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  13. I think that it is important to look at the big picture when addressing these issues, but I side with the oil companies. I understand what environmentalists are getting at when talking about the oil sands and the issues they pose but I don’t believe that many of them consider how important they really are and how much they affect the daily lives of people.
    Sure the oil sands are not beneficial to the environment, but I often wonder if environmentalists take into account how the world would be affected if this resource wasn’t exploited. Everyone against the oil sands focuses in on the fact that companies are killing the environment to make money, when you put it that way it sounds pretty bad. It’s a true fact to an extent, but why is there such a demand for oil? because it affects the quality of live of every individual on the planet, imagine how many people would be worse off in the world without the oil sands. For those people who are against the “dirty oil,” and side with environmentalists, I understand why you might be upset, as in reality it’s not great for the environment, but I think that there are some things that you should take into consideration as the propaganda machine might have a bit of a hold on you…..
    First, it is important to look at the benefits of the oil sands. This is a vast resource that is within our grasp. There can never be too much oil in the world, that’s why it is in such high demand. Practically EVERYTHING is petroleum based, plastics, chemicals, fuel, the computer I’m typing on right now has petroleum products in it. Ask yourself what would we do without these products? We are so dependent on these resources as a global community that if we were to run out, or even stop extracting the now available resource from oil sand imagine the impact it would have. Quality of life would go down all around the world, millions of people would go broke, other industries that depend on petroleum would go bankrupt, the economy would collapse, people would die, Canada’s economy would go to shit, and you wouldn’t be able to have ur morning Starbucks coffee, let alone get to Starbucks…wouldn’t that suck! The reason we are exploiting this resource is for economic value yes, but the underlying reason its economically valued is that it is NEEDED! the main argument is that if dirty oil was to stop being extracted millions would suffer.
    The other thing to take into consideration is the propaganda machine. Many people that say the oil sands are bad are ill informed. There are thousands of publicity stunts that attack the oil sands, but very few that show the benefits, and many of those arguing against the oil sands are hypocritical. James Cameron is a prime example, ill informed people who are uneducated in the area listen to him because he made the so called best movie of all time. He came to Canada and ripped into the oil sands or being dirty and horrible etc. what does a director know about the environment or the oil industry? also if the petroleum industry is so bad for the environment how come u flew in on ur private jet and took a limo instead of a bus? or wait, how much petroleum resource do u think it cost to film Avatar. It is people like that who make the industry look bad. Everyone says the oil sands are bad, but do the cons really outweigh the pros? sure the environment suffers, but think of how many people benefit and how the economy benefits and the quality of life around the world. I bet people fighting against the oil sands don’t tell you that oil companies spend billions of dollars to uphold environmental regulations and be “cleaner”.
    Aside from all that, I think it is important for oil companies to do a better job with their delivery of information. I think that they need to do a better job of informing the public about the benefits of oil and gas and the oil sand, and show why they are good. Companies like Cenovus do a good job with slogans in commercials like “a greener oil sands,” but other companies need to follow. I think that if people start to understand the benefits of the oil sands then there would be less hostility towards them.

    1. Thanks Joel! I agree with your three points. There is no qtosuien there is capture involved, whereby both environmental groups (some) and clean energy producers are very self-interested in promoting the benefits of the FIT. Not sure that the FIT-> spinning reserve calculus is that important, but certainly some players such as Enbridge see a win-win where they can meet their environmental goals (net zero energy for pipelines in Enbrige’s case) while earning a rate-of-return along the way. Same would be true of TransCanada, Capital Power, etc. I also think the point that Dalton McGuinty is looking for easy soundbites is bang-on. People want renewable energy? Okay, let’s get them more renewable energy. People want jobs? Look, here are some jobs that we created and no one can dispute that those jobs would not exist without the FIT. You are right on that the jobs that will be lost to higher electricity prices and the payment of higher rates and/or taxes will be spread much more widely and over a longer term so harder to blame on McGuinty. Alastair is partially correct, although I think the difference between a physical asset like an oil sands plant and the infrastructure that goes with it, i.e. pipelines, etc. are a little different than a policy. Policies are easier to overturn if people don’t support them want an example, look no further than the new royalty framework here in Alberta.Andrew

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