Global environmental challenges
“The other oil disaster”
Forget the BP oil spill for a moment. An international PR war is heating up this week between environmentalists and the oil industry over an entirely different sore spot: The Alberta oil sands in northern Canada.
Billboards targeting the region with the largest crude reserves outside the Middle East sprang up in four major U.S. cities this week in the launch of a multi-million dollar, multi-year campaign led by NGO Corporate Ethics International.
The campaign, supported by a network of foundations including Polaris Institute, Friends of the Earth and Earthworks, is scheduled to also run in Europe and Asia.
Billboards in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis urge U.S. travelers to boycott Alberta, (dubbed “The Other Oil Disaster,”) because the energy-intensive extraction process of the oil sands is destroying wildlife and habitat on a scale that far exceeds other hotbeds for environmental concern, including the BP oil spill, according to their website.
“We think that actually in the end there’s no comparison. The tar sands are much worse (than the BP spill),” Corporate Ethics director Michael Marx told the Edmonton Journal.
Unlike conventional oil and gas, production of oil sands is more carbon-intensive because it requires the use of hot water and chemicals to separate the sticky black bitumen from the sands. The used water then collects in toxic ponds. Upgraders convert the bitumen into synthetic light oil that is shipped to refineries in Canada and the United States.
Last month, a judge found Syncrude Canada Ltd, Canada’s largest oil sands producer, guilty in the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on one of the “tailings ponds” in 2008, and ruled the company should have had deterrents in place. The company faces maximum penalties of C$800,000.
But the oil sands are a major source of revenue for the Canadian province. After investment in the region collapsed during the financial crisis, companies have again begun to spend on new oil sands projects and the Energy Resources Conservation Board expects output to reach 3.2 million barrels by 2019.
Last week, the province paid $55,000 to run a half-page ad in the Washington Post to defend the oil sands industry, after 50 U.S. Congress members urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to delay the $12-billion Keystone XL pipeline expansions to Texas.
“Most Americans, and probably most Canadians, don’t know we are the largest supplier of petroleum to the United States, bigger than Saudi Arabia, bigger than Venezuela,” spokesman to Alberta’s premier Jerry Bellikka told The Edmonton Journal.
Following the Syncrude incident, the Alberta government tightened regulations and now requires companies to prepare plans for the ponds and file reports on them annually.
During the court case, the oil industry mounted a PR blitz about how it is tightening procedures and developing new technology to stop the spread of tailings ponds and deal with the waste.
The boycott campaign “absolutely will affect business,” Ken Fiske, vice-president of tourism and marketing for the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, told the Journal.
What do you think? Is the oil sands a bigger environmental concern than the BP oil spill?
Image shows one of the “Rethink Alberta” billboards launched in four U.S. cities the week of July 13, 2010, reprinted courtesy of Corporate Ethics International. REUTERS/Handout/Corporate Ethics International