Today I went to a session on the Alberta oil sands. It was a breakfast meeting, and the audience was other financial professionals like me. The speaker was from industry, and he was there to give the industry’s side of the oil sands story.
After the session I went to work, and a younger guy I work with asked me about it. This particular guy used to work on an oil rig. He found the work so physically demanding and dangerous, he decided to pack it in and become an accountant like me! He told me that he felt that talking about the oil sands in social situations was akin to talking about politics and religion. Everyone has a different opinion, and people get offended easily if your opinion does not match theirs. I thought that was so interesting.
Talking about the oil sands is now taboo?
I can totally see his point though.
I first learned details about the Alberta oil sands about 4 years ago. I attended a luncheon, put on by the same financial association actually. An expert from industry told us that the total oil deposits in Alberta are second only to Saudi Arabia. We were told that it was an economic engine for Alberta, for Canada. We were told that it will stream royalties into provincial coffers, which will help keep Alberta income taxes low. We felt proud to live here, with all this wealth, this jewel. I remember walking out that meeting feeling impressed, feeling lucky that Alberta had such a treasure.
Then slowly over time I learned more snippets of information. I heard it takes 3 barrels of water to make one barrel of oil. Then I heard that it takes 8 barrels of water – which was it? Then we heard about the 1,600 ducks that had landed on Sycrude’s tailing pond, and all died. Hmmm. That is not so good. Then more news stories started coming out. There were several billboards put up in several US states, telling Americans to boycott travel to Alberta, to protest dirty oil. Now the Alberta tourism industry, an innocent bystander, was being dragged into this mess. Oh oh. Then we heard that Walgreens was boycotting Alberta oil. Then Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta came out and said that the oil sands were polluting the Athabasca River and showed images of deformed fish. Alberta Environment said the pollutants were from naturally occurring sources. Environment Canada decided to dispatch 6 independent scientists, just to make sure. Then James Cameron (director of Avatar) came to tour the Alberta oil sands and the media was all in a tizzy. What would he say? Well after receiving tours by both industry and by native aboriginals, he said that the oil sands will be a curse on Canada if not managed properly. Hmm. A curse? Then another two hundred ducks landed on more tailings ponds and died. Then LUSH cosmetics and Concord Transportation boycotted. Then just last week Avon said they were boycotting.
Now I don’t feel so proud. People think our oil is dirty. Some people say that the oil sands are a stain on Canada’s environmental record. Stain?
There seem to be two main problems. One is the water – pollution from the tailings ponds and pollution in the river. The other is the C02 – they need to burn energy (natural gas) to get the oil. So they are burning a fossil fuel to get a fossil fuel, which we will then in turn, burn.
But oil is oil and we all use it when we drive our cars and purchase our products. We are the reason the oil sands exist. If there was no demand, they would not be pulling it out of the ground. The companies are only doing what we demand.
One response to this problem is to reduce our dependence on oil by cutting back on how much we drive our cars and how many goods we purchase. We the people, can make this conscious decision. It is hard, I know. People love their cars and so many of our North American cities have been built around the automobile, so nothing is in walking distance and transit is not very good. There are exceptions to this, however.
The other response is to look to government to help us. Can they regulate these oil companies to leave a lighter foot print? Pollute less water? Use smaller tailings ponds? Use a portion of renewable energy to pull the stuff out of the ground? Cut emissions?
I think we need all of these things.
During the breakfast meeting this morning I walked in thinking that I should ask a question. I felt it was my environmental duty to pose a well thought out, rational and polite question. So I did:
Sherry: How many barrels of water are actually used? Is it 3? Is it 8? We hear conflicting numbers in the media.
Oil Sands guy: Our company uses 2 barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca river and 8 barrels of brackish water from underground aquifers. The brackish water is saline and not drinkable. We recycle 87% of the water used.
I was on a role and gaining courage, so I asked another one:
Sherry: Given the international image of the oil sands that you are trying to repair, has your company ever thought about the use of renewable energy to get the oil out of the ground, such as wind, solar or geothermal? I know it would cost more, but may provide a better image to the world.
Oil Sands guy: Yes we have thought of that actually. The problem is that the contribution of energy of renewable sources would be negligible, and is very expensive.
Just. One. More.
Sherry: We heard on the news that Dr. Schindler from the University of Alberta found that there was pollution in the Athabasca river downstream from the oil sands. Then we heard Alberta Environment report that he was wrong, there was no man-made pollution. Then Environment Canada sent 6 independent scientists to check it out. Again – conflicting stories in the media. Who should we believe?
Oil Sands guy: Dr. Schindler is a very smart guy, but my understanding is that his study might not have been long enough to provide an accurate picture. There is also the issue of naturally occurring oil sand that cuts into the river – it is difficult to separate out the naturally occurring pollutants from the man-made ones.
So there you have it. I put forward my voice in a room full of professionals. In the past I would have remained silent, and kept my thoughts to myself. But new found environmental leaf makes me feel like I must speak. Perhaps my words got someone else thinking. So let’s talk this thing out. Let’s have a dialogue.
Back at work, I was talking about the session with the one younger co-worker that had asked me about it (the one who used to work on an oil rig), and other co-workers overheard us and joined in. By the end there were 7 of us talking about it. It seemed to be a topic we were all interested in. I realized by the end that we are all rational people (being accountants, and all) and we all kind of thought the same thing:
We can’t keep on just waiting – waiting on the world to change.