By Robert Roach

Jan. 30, 2013


“The well-organized opposition to the southern Ontario auto industry has shifted its main approach from highlighting the carbon emissions of cars and trucks to stressing the number of traffic deaths caused by the industry’s product each year. The European Union is debating a ban on Canada’s “death machines” and a Quebec politician recently said that cars and trucks from the southern Ontario auto sector are not welcome in his province. Big Auto responded by pointing out its progress on fuel efficiency and safety but is not considered a credible source.”

The above account is, of course, fiction. Opponents of the Canadian auto industry do not garner headlines in major newspapers or inspire international boycotts.

Ontario’s auto sector, in fact, is typically (and accurately) described as an important Canadian industry that helps maintain the country’s prosperity.

So why is it so different when it comes to Alberta’s oil sands? How did this particular resource development become the punching bag of environmentalists around the world and how did we end up in the bizarre situation where an industry that is contributing significantly to Canada’s economic success is eyed with suspicion by so many Canadians?

Four factors help explain how a remote and hitherto largely ignored resource development in northern Alberta became a lightning rod for inflamed rhetoric and polarized debate.

First, they say that timing is everything and the timing has been bad for the oil sands. In 2004, just two years before Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” hit theatres and got lots of people talking about climate change, the US Department of Energy officially recognized Canada’s oil sands reserves as the second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia’s (Venezuela has since overtaken Canada).

For environmentalists worried that fossil fuels are a root cause of a looming climate crisis, the sudden appearance of a massive new oil deposit was big news. If the oil sands had come online 20 years ago, hardly anyone would have batted an eyelash, but it was thrust into the spotlight right when carbon emissions were becoming the biggest cause célèbre of the new millennium.

Second, they say that a picture is worth a thousand words and no matter how much makeup you put on a massive strip mining project, it is impossible to make it look pretty from an environmental perspective. It doesn’t matter that most of the oil in the oil sands will be harvested using in situ technology that does not require removing the forest cover, the images of giant dump trucks, moonscapes and ponds filled with industrial muck are now firmly associated with oil sands development.

The image of the oil sands took a huge hit when 1,600 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond in 2008. Pictures of birds covered in oil (even if they were stock photos unrelated to the oil sands) horrified people around the world. For whatever reason, photos of dead birds at the foot of wind turbines don’t make as many newspaper and magazine covers even though wind farms are responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of birds each year. Those ill-fated ducks put the environmental implications of the oil sands on the front page.

Third, they say the three most important words when it comes to real estate are location, location, location. This is also true when it comes to opposing resource development. At first blush, the remoteness of the oil sands seems to work in its favour, but this is outweighed by the fact the resource is concentrated in one area. As a result, it is easy to point at it and say “stop that” whereas it is difficult to do the same with hundreds of new coal-fired power plants spread across China or the thousands of gas stations people use every day in North America.

Fourth, they say that it’s not what you know but who you know and a lot of people (at least outside Alberta and Atlantic Canada) don’t know someone who supports their family by working in the oil sands. Hence, a lot of people are comfortable casting Big Oil as the villain in the global environmental drama even though they themselves consume large quantities of oil and benefit indirectly from the economic growth, royalties and taxes the industry generates. If people lose their jobs as a result, you can sleep at night because it’s for the sake of the planet.

These factors highlight the need for Canadians to rethink why the oil sands is environmental public enemy number one. None of this is meant to suggest that the environmental challenges of the oil sands should be ignored, but to point out that demonizing a particular resource development is not the most constructive way forward.

On January 30, 2013, the Canada West Foundation released a report on how the oil sands has been portrayed in the media entitled From Dead Ducks to Dutch Disease.