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Letter to National Geographic

Letter to the editor

Dear Stephen Leahy,

This letter is in response to your article published in National Geographic on April 11, 2019, entitled, “This is the world’s most destructive oil operation – and it’s growing”

Full disclosure, I work for an Alberta-based natural gas producer, and I have never worked in the oil sands. Nonetheless, I find the reporting in your article shoddy, lazy, and under-researched. It’s extremely disappointing that National Geographic reviewed this article after receiving much criticism, but does not believe that anything reported in it is inaccurate. There are not only a number of material errors, there are a disturbing number of omissions.

Mr. Leahy, you clearly searched out people who support your biases, like a former politician who has never worked in the oil and gas industry. I would encourage you to speak with people from companies with current operations in the oil sands to ensure you get a balanced perspective.

Your article misleads by suggesting there isn’t support for Canadian oil and gas. That’s simply not true. A recent survey conducted in February 2019 by Research Co. showed 79% of Canadians expressed support for resource development in our country. A survey conducted by Abacus Data in September 2018 showed 7 in 10 (70%) Canadians support the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX). A small minority is opposed to development, but many of them are foreign-based organizations who have no direct impact from the projects.

The reason so many Canadians are supportive of resource development, including the oil sands, is because of our stringent environmental and regulatory requirements, such as the requirement in Alberta to reclaim all oil and gas assets at the end of their life. There is absolutely a plan to clean up tailings ponds, and billions of dollars have been spent by industry on these efforts as proof. A tailings pond was successfully reclaimed in 2010 by Suncor Energy. Here are pictures of what the site looks like today.

While there are consequences from oil sands development, there are consequences from all types of energy development. The Environment Minister of the previous NDP government of Alberta estimated that each operating wind turbine kills 2 to 3 birds and 3 to 7 bats per year, putting the total around 9,000 annually in Alberta. This number will only increase as the use of wind power increases. In contrast, a professor of biological sciences with the University of Alberta estimates that about 200 birds die per year due to landing on tailings ponds.

Although the area of the oil sands reserves is large, a very small area has been mined. Much of it is produced through SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) in situ methods, similar to drilling a typical well, and does not result in any tailings ponds. Advancements like pad site drilling techniques means that multiple wells can be drilled horizontally off of one pad resulting in minimal surface disturbance. Here is a picture of a SAGD well at Cenovus Energy’s Christina Lake site. As you can see, it’s quite non-invasive.

Compare the above photo to one taken of the emission-intensive Belridge oil field near Bakersfield, California, a short distance from fossil fuel-hating, over-consuming Hollywood. Maybe this field could be the subject of your next article?

Your article is about 10 years too late. The Canadian oil and gas sector is committed to R&D and innovation, and as a result, emissions have decreased by 1/3 on a per barrel basis in the oil sands since 2004. For example, the GHG intensity per barrel produced from Cenovus Energy’s Christina Lake assets is lower than an average barrel of oil produced in the USA. And Cenovus is working on technology that could further reduce emissions by another 1/3. That’s pretty remarkable, but by no means unique. The entire Canadian industry is continually striving for improvements.

These improvements are why it’s a gross misrepresentation to directly link people’s health conditions to the oil sands. You have not provided any background on their genetics or their health history; therefore, there is absolutely no way readers should directly correlate any of their health issues with oil and gas development.

There are benefits to local communities from oil sands production. Between 2015 and 2016, oil sands operators provided $40.79 million in consultation capacity funding to Indigenous communities, invested more than $3.3 billion on procurement alone, and worked with 399 Indigenous businesses in 66 Alberta communities. This money goes a long way in advancing impoverished communities and increasing prosperity for everyone, and that is something I would think you would support for our fellow Canadians.

Mr. Leahy, I ask you to do further research and correct the many errors in your story. And, as a fellow Canadian, I also ask that you do better reporting in the future.

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