Appreciating the oil sands

It's interesting what a bad rap the oil sands get

If the countries of the world are buying oil – and they are – then why not buy it from Canada?

After all, we are a secure country, with the rule of law and a democratic society.

Canada is the world's sixth largest oil producer and has the third largest reserves. The countries with the largest reserves besides Canada are Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and Iraq. None are known for the quality of their democracies, working conditions or environmental responsibility.

The oil sands contribute billions of dollars to government services. Tens of thousands of people work in well-paid jobs in Fort McMurray. Hundreds of thousands of families in every province are supported by a family member in a spin-off industry job, keeping the kids in hockey and the mortgage paid.

At Fort McMurray, the Cree used bitumen seeping out of the soil along the Athabaska River to repair their canoes. In 1790, the explorer Alexander Mackenzie was the first to record a description of the oil sands.

The oil operations which either mine or drill to extract the oil have ramped up dramatically over the last few years. The mines are open pit sites, where oil filled soil is shoveled into mighty trucks, processed on-site, and then the oil is sent off to market in pipelines. Oil that is too deep to mine is recovered by drilling using a process which heats the underground oil, and pumps it up to the surface.

Sites no longer in use are restored back to their natural biology.

The pipeline from Fort McMurray heads south to the markets of the world – or at least, the markets of the US, given the limited access to world markets. But the very interesting issue of pipelines to the west coast is not for this column.

Oil is Canada's biggest export sector at $114 billion last year. As a small country we need to be able to trade. People understand that, which is why, for example, the export of liquid natural gas is well-supported here in BC.

So why, outside Alberta, do the oil sands have trouble getting respect?

Opposition in general comes from two directions – political and environmental.

Thomas Mulcair, leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, disagrees with oil sands development, in spite of the tens of thousands of union jobs they generate and the equalization payments which pour into Quebec — $7.4 billion last year.

Closer to home, the Mayor of Vancouver has stamped his foot and said no more tankers, taking a direct swipe at the industry.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) invited environmentalist Bill McKibben to address a crowd in Vancouver, and he spent an hour telling the audience why Canadian oil is bad. Really? Why not Nigerian? Or Iranian?

Greenpeace has a long-standing "tar sands" campaign. Other on-line journals and environmental groups take great glee in mocking the industry.

It's good that as a society we try to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Cities in particular can build so that people walk more, consume less energy and reduce their overall greenhouse gas production. Vancouver, for example, has actually met the Kyoto target for greenhouse gas reduction.

Smart people can develop alternate energy sources, and most of us hope that one day a magic bullet will be found. But that day hasn't arrived, and even hydro power, that most benign of energy sources, is hard to develop in new facilities.

In the meantime, we still drive to work and we fly to Toronto. If we're lucky, we holiday in warm places. And let's face it, many of us like our flat screen TVs.

We live in an world running on oil, and Canadian oil is as good as it gets.

For the environmental groups, the explanation for disliking the oil sands is fairly straightforward. If you can make a point which your supporters love and will support with cash, then that's a fruitful point for you to be making. There are some who believe that Americans are conspiring to keep oil imports cheap by blocking our access to other markets, which is possible but difficult to prove.

Even though many of the anti-oil sands campaigns are over the top, most of us can agree that environmental oversight is good. We all want the oil sands producers to get it right, to restore their sites when done, and to mine in a responsible way.

It's the political criticism which is more troubling. Thomas Mulcair's strong dislike, Dalton McGuinty's scorn, NDP leader Adrian Dix's grumbling and the Mayor of Vancouver's outright non-support all demonstrate a lack of leadership and an unwillingness to consider how important the oil sands are to Canada.

Politicians need to keep an open mind. They need to spend the time to understand the issues and the alternatives. Unthinking criticism is poor leadership.

Because, fundamentally, the oil sands are too valuable to our citizens and to our country to wish them away.

– post by Suzanne Anton

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  • Steven Forth

    Interesting that the leader of the NPA has chosen to do a puff piece on the bitumen sands. There are good arguments for Canada to exploit this resource but there are also heavy costs (economic, social and ecological) and to deny this is fundamentally dishonest. Sad that City Caucus, which has been the NPAs most effective communication channel, would choose to have this vapid propaganda as their final message.

    “Politicians need to keep an open mind. They need to spend the time to understand the issues and the alternatives.” Something that Ms. Anton and the NPA have failed to do.

    Signing off …

    • What you can believe, you can achieve. I firmly believe that increasing tanker traffic exponentially on our coast will lead to environmental devastation far outweighing any benefits to BC’s people. I also believe that letting so much energy sit in the ground is detrimental to the health and wealth of the world. There is a way to maximize it’s potential without risking environmental catastrophe-the trick is to find it and implement it-whether it means building new refineries in North America (old tech) or developing technologies for long-distance high efficiency transmission of electricity.Right now we’re being presented an either/or situation, a false choice. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, put on our thinking caps, and find a way to use that incredible resource to benefit humanity without collateral environmental damage. If we can only believe…

      • So you put no weight on the fact that the tanker traffic has been going on since 1915 without incident? You put no weight in the extensive safety efforts and the financial incentives to make sure nothing happens?

        What about alien invasion? Look what Columbus did to the natives here and how bad it would be if aliens landed? Why take the risk of sending radio and television waves into space? We should not be putting satellites into space because of a theoretical but nearly impossible risk?

        When all the risks and benefits are rationally weighed, there’s no good reason to pass up an opportunity for Canada to lead the world.

        What about the risks of giving billions daily to dictators? What about the wars being fought in the middle east that could be prevented if Canada could fully develop the resource? What about the complete indifference to the environment and people that the present dictators that are now supplying the oil have? Inaction has a cost too.

        The good Canada can do for the world and for the people of Canada itself can’t be ignored on the basis of fear. Every possible effort IS being done and must be done to protect against a theoretical worst case scenario. Doing nothing isn’t a realistic option or in dispute.

        Worst case scenarios happen frequently in Venezuela, Nigeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. You never hear about it because they have no free press to report it. They have no courts that an compel dictators to clean up spills or pay damages to victims. They have no laws to protect the environment.

        Inaction has a very high cost to the world and to Canada. Action has the potential to literally save the world from tyranny.

        The trillions of dollars involved virtually insure Canada will go forward and develop the resource. That battle cannot be won. The battle that can be won is to do it in the best and safest way with the least impact and to the highest standards possible. You’ll win that battle. If you fight the wrong battle — it’s more likely the worst-case scenario you fear will come to pass because you passed on the opportunity to make a difference in order to attempt the impossible.

        • boohoo

          aliens—i miss this blog already! lol

        • Higgins

          Good one KS!
          But FYI the aliens are already here!
          In the form of Vision Vancouver leeches!
          Boohoo is just a low ranked page jumping up and down!
          A Buffoon really!

          • waltyss

            You and KS are two things that will not be missed when this blog disappears. Back under rock, Higgins.
            Karla and Suzanne, did you write your own pieces or did ethical oil do it for you. I know how helpful they can be.
            KS, if you believe every safety and environmental step possible is being taken, then I really do have an alien for you to meet.

    • What are the top social, economic and ecological “costs”? Most of the standard stuff has already been thoroughly debunked but gets brought up over and over as if it was some new idea or has not already been addressed.

      What are the costs of keeping all the jobs and money out of the economy? Why do you think the environment would be ignored or overlooked in the development? What negative (legitimate) social “costs” are you referring to?

      I’m calling bullshit on you.

  • teririch

    Thank you for a well balanced article.

    As someone who works in the resource sector, it is somewhat refreshing to read a post that is not completely negative.

    People and politicians do need to educate themselves.

    As for Mulcair, well, he isn’t making any friends within the industry and as Dix and Robertson blindly follow the same leader….what can one say.

    Mulcair is stepping on a lot of toes – even those unionized members and leaders that make excellent livings working the sands are raising eyebrows at his anti-oilsands rhetoric.

    We are falling into the same trap as forestry by having basically one market for our oil distribution – the US. This keeps our product value low.

    Selling to the Asia’s is the progressive step we need to take.


    • waltyss

      Ah, Ms Ethical Oil herself. Of course, you would think the ethical oil article Suzanne wrote is good.
      And let’s see, Karla says that buying oil from dictators is bad but teririch says selling oil to dictators is good. Ah, the oil industry apologists brought a smile to may face.
      Oh, and girls, have you noticed that since Mulcair talked about the way in which the tar sands are distorting the Canadian economy, the NDP has moved ahead of the Conservatives in the polls. Just asking.

  • boohoo

    Oh Karla,

    Your post is so full of LOL I don’t even know where to begin. Dictators bad, selling oil to China good. Let’s start there–rationalize that if you can.

    • Karla Sofen

      Would you prefer China buy Fair Trade coffee, or buy it from coffee from Cuba?

  • Karla Sofen

    Every barrel China buys from us is one less being bought from dictators. Why not put their money into Canada’s economy and keep it from gross human rights violators?

  • Karla Sofen

    I can’t compose properly on iPad. China will not stop using or buying oil if we can’t or won’t sell it to them. Better their money come here and pay for our social welfare programs, schools, and health care instead of empowering anti-woman, anti-gay dictators building palaces and funding world terrorism.

  • boohoo

    So buying from bad guys is not good, but selling to bad guys is ok.


    • Karla Sofen

      If the alternative is giving money to even worse people and fighting wars and funding terrorists, yes. Better Canada get the money. Opposing Canada is supporting OPEC tyranny. Do you favour not buying from China because they are a bad guy?

      China will not stop using oil because we can’t or won’t sell it to them.

      Support Canada!

  • boohoo

    If the alternative is funding terrorists? Where do you come up with this stuff?

    • waltyss

      Karla is just a little computer chip at Ethical Oil so don’t be too hard on it.

    • Karla Sofen

      Saudi Arabia and Iran top fund sources of worldwide terrorism. Syria, Nigeria, Sudan. Where is terrorism worse? Why buy their products? Why put 9 billion a day in their hands? Why not put it in Canada instead?

      Appeals to ridicule prove nothing. Insults prove nothing. You got nothing.

      • boohoo

        Your assertion that the alternative is only support terrorism or sell to China is ridiculous.

        There are a number of other options to get us in a position where we don’t have to make the decision on which bad guy is badder. It won’t happen overnight, but just continuing down this suicidal path is….well, take a guess.

        • What are the other options and why is our current path suicidal?

  • Mark

    Love the paid shills from Ezra Levant’s “Ethical Oil” crew coming out to parrot the same old bull.

    Levant has no principles or honour. The man has completely sold himself out to the highest corporate bidders.

    I know the economy is tough right now, but no job is worth debasing yourself to work for that pathetic excuse of a man. It will be a black mark that will follow you for life.

    • teririch


      Unlike say…David Suzuki.

      He hasn’t sold himself out to the largest TIDES bidder at all. Hence his stepping down from his post.

      I find it fascinating that as soon as anyone disagrees in part or in whole with another’s opinion, they are automatically ‘paid shills’.

      Time for some to grow up.

      And guess what my friend, I don’t work for Levant and for that matter, have never met him.

      • Mark

        Not directed at you. Though you are parroting the line pretty directly which is kind of sad to see if you are not working for them. It’s a really crappy argument that doesn’t stand up to any real scrutiny, and most people see it for exactly the corporate propaganda it is.

        What’s with the David Suzuki thing? Not really relevant to the topic at hand. Levant makes no real secret of his role and those of his “grassroots” organizations, it’s more or less all out in the open.

        And really, even if Suzuki was working for some shadowy environmental group today, at least there is no doubting his convictions. I’m not sure how old you are but Suzuki has been fighting to protect nature since he was an unknown young man without much money. The guy has real principles and has worked towards them his whole life, and even if you disagree with them, there isn’t any arguing with that.

        To compare him in the same breath to a corporate sellout of the lowest order who has spent his entire career working to make our country a worse place is a little bit mind boggling.

      • Mark

        And just a note on the “paid shills” thing, I agree with you that it’s poor form to drop it on someone who simply disagrees with an individual opinion…

        But when a person repeats essentially word for word the incredibly weak primary argument of an astroturf organization funded by the oil industry, it really leaves only two options:

        1. The person is in the employ of the organization in question.

        2. The person is extraordinarily gullible and possesses poor critical thinking skills.

        And frankly I think in that situation it’s more polite to give people the benefit of the doubt and think they are acting in their own interest as opposed to simply being useful idiots.

        • We all know that insults and ridicule are top “critical thinking” skills among the commentators here. You got nothing.

        • waltyss

          Mark, well said. I don’t know if Suzanne was paid for her article by ethical oil but it is stunning how closely it parrots its line. And guess what, all of you having a bird about Tides Canada and support from American environmental groups, ethical oil is almost entirely if not entirely the child of American, British and Dutch (ie. foreign) oil companies.
          I don’t have a problem with pipelines (I do with oil tankers) if they can be done in an environmentally safe manner. However I trust neither the oil companies, the Cons or their shills on this topic. I would want independent verification.
          In any event, from a national point of view, instead of a new pipeline, why not reverse the flow on the pipeline from the East to the West. Canada would not then have to import foreign oil or at least less of it. Both Saudi and Chinese despots could be eliminated. It would be in Canada’s best interests rather than the best interests of Alberta or the oil companies.
          The pipeline into BC gives BC all of the risks and nothing but a few temporary construction jobs.

          • Oil tankers have been loading out of Vancouver since 1915 without incident. How much safer do you want it? What safety measure could be taken, but isn’t? You just want a ban. No doubt based on your original ideas and research and not repeating something you heard elsewhere. Your view is wholly unique and original, right? Are you a paid shill? You say all the same things as the Green Party. How can we take your views seriously when you are just parroting the views of other people? We can only take you seriously or weigh the evidence if you come up with every idea yourself and if no one else ever said the same thing in any media. We all have to be held to the same standards don’t you think? Fair is fair.

          • waltyss

            Karla, you are embarassing yourself.
            I don’t claim to be original but equally, I am not simply parroting someone else’s views.
            And Karla, I did not say I was opposed to a pipeline. If you had read my post, I advocate using a pipeline to ship oil to refineries in Eastern Canada. hardly a ban.
            Do I support having tankers on our shores if there are alternatives and it will significantly increase the chances of a spill? No. Am I absolutely opposed to tankers? No. Do the trust the Cons whose snouts are so far in the oil companies pockets as to be undiscoverable? No. I am imagine you would answer yes to all.

      • waltyss

        Teririch: your posts consistently show you to be a shill for oil and mining. Fair enough.
        However it needs to be said. I don’t always agree with David Suzuki but he is a great Canadian and head and shoulders above the likes of Suzanne Anton, Stephen Harper or the nonentity who passes for Harper’s environment minister.
        Suzuki has worked hard to bring environmental issues to the for and we are better for it. Anton and people like you and KS, the computer chip, want us to sell to one despot rather than buy from another. Such principals!

        • teririch


          What a hypocrit.

          You bash oil and mininng and yet you type your hatred toward the industry on your computer.

          • boohoo

            “You bash oil and mininng and yet you type your hatred toward the industry on your computer.”

            What’s with this childish logic? Just because you want to see something reduced or eliminated doesn’t make you a hypocrite when you use it. If that’s true then we’re all hypocrites.

          • waltyss

            First, it’s “hypocrite”.
            Second, your snout is so far up oil companies’s butts, that you don’t read what I have said.
            I am not opposed to extracting oil. I have issues with tanker traffic and environmental impacts of another pipeline particularly where we get little for it. I think we should and can meet our own needs for oil by reversing the pipeline which would decrease oil traffic in the East, have us purchase, refine and use our own oil and avoid both increased tanker traffic on our coast and another pipeline.
            Does that sound like being opposed to oil extraction or mining. Only if you will swallow whatever bilge the oil companies or mining industry puts out. Increase out taxes and we will leave. To where? The Congo?
            While you regurgitate about selling to dictators versus buying from dictators, oil companies will gladly sit down with any dictator, pay kickbacks and throw a blow job into the bargain, if they can make obscene profits and not have to clean up the land or give returns to locals whose resource it is.
            Oh, there I go bashing oil companies again. The sad truth is we need oil companies but we also need to keep them on a very short leash because they will seek to get away with anything they possibly can. And they have plenty of “believers” like you to spew their nonsense. I’m of the Ronald Reagan school when it comes to oil companies. Trust but verify.

  • boohoo

    “I find it fascinating that as soon as anyone disagrees in part or in whole with another’s opinion, they are automatically ‘paid shills’.”

    LOL!! Where have you been on this blog for the past 2 years?? LOL

  • Allain Lepants

    How about we keep our oil and refine it here. Nationalize the resource and drive the cost of fuel into the ground. It would light a fire in our economy that would trickle down to all Canadians, not those of us tarred enough to slime-ball it to communist China. The tar sands do nothing for the average Canadian, and when the price of it becomes inflated because the market in china will set a higher price for it, we all lose again. It is that simple.

    • Steven Forth

      I happen to agree that Canada should look at its tax laws and those of the US, and investigate how owenership in the energy industry shapes supply chain decisions. We should also be dedicating R&D dollars to next generation refinery technology (I would like to see these refineries around Vancouver as they will drive many next generation green technologies). But to think that having refineries in Canada means the oil will not go to China or that Canada will enjoy lower oil prices is wrong. Oil is a global market and all Canadian production will just be a drop in the barrel. This is one (of many) reasons that the ethical oil arguments are so silly, as is the claim that the US is somehow getting an economic subsidy from Canada because of the structure of pipeline infrastructure. Sadly, the people making the ‘ethical oil’ argument generally know how morally vacant their claims are (either that or they are totally ignorant of economics and the energy industry, which does not appear to be the case).

    • teririch


      I understand what you are saying, but there are mining companies facing ‘resource or economic’ nationalism in various countires (Argentina, Peru etc) and it isn’t going down well. Companies will pack up and leave rather than be held hostage to stupidly high tax rates or handing over controlling interests of their projects.

      As it stands right now, and with the prospect of an NDP government hitting BC and how bad things were for the mining industry the last go around – that fear of resource nationalism is alive and well and being discussed.

      • Mark

        Spin that same tired old fear, uncertainty and doubt.

        The people of this province see through this bull now.

        We will choose what is best for us, and best for our land.

  • teririch


    Unlike many 20 somethings wandering around, I worked during those years and remember them quite clearly.

    But hey, mining goes on world wide. Companies can pack up shop and look elsewhere. If they go, so do those billions of dollars in tax revenue and jobs.

    And then where do your think the money will come from to support every socialist whim?

    Start looking in your pockets for some spare change.

    The one thing the NDP has perfected – Tax and Spend.

    Dix was onboard the last go around, when they tried to tax minerals in the ground, before companies had even harvested them, and takes his marching orders from Mulcair who is already spouting off about higher taxes for the resource sector.

    But then again, Mulcair wanted to send billions of our tax dollars to help bail out France, so his judgement is grand.

    And I will repeat this, many of the company presidents, CEO’s, Directors etc lived though it last go around and know all too well the hell they went through. As did the forestry sector.

    Mulcair want to bring back manufacturing …manufacture what? People want cheap goods and you can’t do that at union wages.

    So my dear friend, the resource sectors are a saving grace to many when it comes to supplying good paying, long term jobs and the NDP for whatever bizarre reason wants to kill that off.

    • Mark

      Alright I take it back. You are obviously either a hired PR flack or work in the industry. Nobody actually talks like this in real life.

      You are just throwing out standard talking points and deflecting away from the actual issues at hand.

      No point interfacing with that.

      Thanks for all your hard work to make this country a better place to live for all of us.

      • teririch


        When you come up with an alternative game plan as where this province and its people are to find reveue to support every ‘program’ under the sun, let the rest of us know.

        You can consider it while sitting in your ivory tower or riding your bike, or playing beach volleyball.

        Meanwile, the balance of us will go on working to keep this province in a good fiscal position so you can have your ‘free’ time and others their ‘free’ stuff.

        • Steven Forth

          What makes you think that Mark, or I, work less than you? How many jobs have you created in Vancouver? How many more will you create this year? How much of your money is invested in Vancouver companies? Are you planning to invest more? I have been investing in Vancouver scince moving here in 1998, and have invested even when I had to borrow to do so. And I continue to invest. I came back from Cambridge MA to Vancouver as I want to be indexed to this city.

        • waltyss


          It must be tough being so, well, “self righteous”. If you were a Christian, you would understand that it is not something you would seek to be.
          In any event, I will put up the hours I work or the money I earn against your hours or income any day any time. Just because I or others are a different political persuasion does not mean we are lazy or don’t work hard. It just means we have a different world view.
          So, Teri, baby, can it because it is not only tiresome, it is incredibly stupid.

  • teririch

    A big shout out to New Afton (mine) for getting their first load out yesterday.

    500 long term, high paying jobs and partnerships with several FN Bands.

    • waltyss

      I join you in congratulating New Gold on gettng their New Afton project into production. It is a good thing.
      However, two things. Your 500 number is a bit of an exaggeration. New Gold’s published figure for jobs is 385 while the Ministry of Mines number is 250. True good news doesn’t need exaggeration unless you are Christy Clark and don’t really understand the words you are saying.
      Finally, your chicken little dance about how the sky is going to fall in if the NDP is elected is more than a little worn. I will bet you good money that the New Afton mine and any other existing mines will continue to operate and flourish long after the NDP come to power.

  • Peter B

    “Sites no longer in use are restored back to their natural biology.”

    I thought that could only be true in a perfect world? I’m pretty sure we still have to assume leaks, spills and “unforseen consequences”.