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.
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?
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