The Rethink Alberta campaign is clearly having an impact in the media and is helping organizations raise funds to continue their campaigning against the oil sands and in favour of a specific social and political agenda for the twenty first century. While there is no real impact likely on tourism – a similar campaign to boycott the Maritimes on the basis of seal-hunting actually had so little impact that tourism numbers in the Maritimes have grown significantly – they do bring out the environmentalist in large numbers.
The campaigning is very smart. It uses images and messaging which are emotional and controversial – oil coated ducks. Facts are presented as “truths”, even though they are incomplete and not subject to a systematic review by peers. While some are extracted from peer reviewed materials, they do not reflect a comprehensive review of the total situation – for example, in-situ extraction of bitumen does not use water from the Athabasca River and does not produce tailings ponds, only certain processes do. Pictures of reclaimed tailings ponds, such as those from the Syncrude operation, are not shown.
But this campaign cannot be countered by facts or “better” public relations. The Government of Alberta’s budget of $25-$30 million for public relations to improve the understanding of the oil sands world-wide may change a few minds, but is unlikely to counter the powerful images of oil coated ducks or pelicans or open cast mines. The Government of Alberta cannot win a public relations battle with the funds available to it – the environmental lobby has deeper pockets for this kind of work.
The only response – and this was the strategy adopted by other sectors facing environmental challenges – is action. Alberta oil companies and the Government of Alberta needs to make explicit commitments to changing how the industry operates over the next twenty five years so as to change the debate from its current winner or looser game to a win-win for all concerned.
What does this require? Three things, all of which are already happening. The first is the close cooperation of the leading oil sands companies with the intention of resolving these environmental challenges over time in effective and powerful ways. Some time ago five of the leading companies working in the oil sands created a cooperative network known as the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI). They are working together to reduce the environmental footprint of the combined oil sands operations, reduce water use, reduce CO2 emissions and ensure air quality. This group also has teams working to reclaim the tailings ponds. While it is early days, OSLI can already point to some success.
The second action that is needed is for the relationship between government and the oil sands companies to become focused on balancing the economic value of the oil sands with the responsibility the government has, as managers of the resource on our behalf, for environmental stewardship. The Land Use Framework, now in place thanks to the work of the former Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, Ted Morton, has kick started the systematic approach to regional land use and will make explicit the strategy for remediation and reclamation for the oil sands regions. We already can see that this plan will set aside land which can only be used for recreation – some twenty per cent of the land in the Fort McMurray region.
The third action is to accelerate investments in environmental technologies which reduce water use, speed up reclamation and remediation (including of the tailings ponds) and, over time, green the oil so that it can meet the standards set by legislation in the US for well-to-wheel emissions and environmental impacts. Significant investments by Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment, Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation of Alberta, Natural Resources Canada and other organizations are already having an impact.
Related actions are also needed. A new relationships with First Nations Communities based on shared and agreed information and an agreed vision for the future would help. Ready access to reliable, independent information about what is actually happening through the Oil Sands Research and Information Network would help journalists and citizens have access to verified information. Full disclosure of sources of funding for environmental groups campaigning against the oil sands may also create greater transparency.
The best way to counter Rethink Alberta is to demonstrate by deeds that this is exactly what is happening. We are rethinking Alberta – its just that many are unaware that we are doing so, or that they are more interested in campaigning than actually making a difference.