Confused by oil sands industry ads? A few helpful facts from Pembina Institute

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When BC-based internet users seek out YouTube videos about the oil sands, they're likely to be confronted with ads like this one by British Columbians for International Prosperity (BC4IP), a 'citizen's group' with oil company ties promoting "practical resource development."

Companies have been trying to position the oil sands as fun and patriotic of late. But do all the statistics they cite add up?

According to Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute, in the case of the above video, we shouldn't be so quick to accept what we are told as the whole truth.

On the whole, the facts are mostly correct, but "selective and without context," said Dyer, "they fail to accurately convey many of the underlying impacts and issues with oil sands development or the fact that all impacts will worsen based on approved expansion trajectories."

The advertisement asserts five things as fact. The following are Dyer's responses to the video's claims.

Claim 1: “The oil sands now recycles between 80 – 95 per cent of the water they use.”

Response: "This is true, although after accounting for recycling, oil sands mining operations are exhausting (extracting and not returning) roughly 2.5 barrels of freshwater per barrel of bitumen produced, and in-situ operations that are exhausting 0.5 barrels of freshwater.  

Despite recycling efforts, there is still a very large amount of freshwater that is being permanently removed from the hydrological cycle every day and volumes will continue to increase with expansion."

Claim 2: “Other new technology causes the ponds to dry in months, instead of decades, so the land can be reclaimed much much faster."

Response: While companies are experimenting with new technologies, the actual performance is a failure.

Claim 3:  "Only 0.02% of Canada’s boreal forest has been disturbed by oil  sands mining."

Response:  Yes, but this is a meaningless statistic with respect to management.

The area leased for oil sands development is over 92,000km2. In situ oil sands development will impact an areas 30 times more than oil sands mining, and the boreal forest continues to be impacted by many other land uses including forestry, agriculture, other types of mining etc.

Claim 4:  "In fact 97 per cent of the oil sands reserves can only be recovered through something called in-situ mining, which is a form of drilling that disturbs very little land." 

Response: This is a statistic from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Again it is true, and it is also true that the direct area cleared for in situ development is less than the area cleared for mining. 

But the concern with in situ mining is the cumulative effect of development. In situ development has the potential to disturb an area that is 30 times larger than the area that could be mined.

This occurs primarily through fragmentation of the land.

Networks of pipelines, roads, power lines, seismic lines and well pads, and has a noticeable impact on wildlife populations.

Woodland caribou will be extirpated in northeastern Alberta as a result of in situ oil sands development.

Claim 5. "As for tailings ponds, the industry is investing a billion dollars to find solutions."

Response: There are over $200 billion of proposed projects in the oil sands, so this puts things in perspective.

There are many existing feasible technologies that could be implemented to address environmental impacts of oil sands development  that are not being implemented as they cost more than the status quo.

Our perspective is that strong policy is required to drive innovation and investments in technological solutions.

For further information, see the Pembina Institute's reports, "Beneath the Surface" and "Solving the Puzzle", and their recently released backgrounder on oil sands performance.

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