Inquiry into the Benefits of Canada's Oil Sands
Honourable Colleagues, I rise with great enthusiasm to commence a Senate Inquiry into Canada’s oilsands, the world’s most ethical source of oil.
I am enthusiastic because by the nature of public affairs, the attention of Parliament is often directed to bad news or problems or shortcomings.
And, like any human endeavour, the oilsands come with their share of challenges.
But when measured by our national values, the oilsands are a good news story, a story that all of us can be proud of. A story that shows how our Canadian identity can shape our industries in a way that makes us an ethical role model to the world.
The oilsands are a national project that reflects Canadian values like environmental conservation, peace, fair treatment of working men and women, respect for minorities, and scientific excellence – all done on a scale as big as Canada itself.
It’s a story of the world’s most conscientious country becoming a reliable energy source for the world, in a way that has never been done before.
Canada’s oilsands are a bold moral counterpoint to the brutal manner in which OPEC countries produce oil. In other words, the oilsands are a Canadian success story.
Before I go any further, I would like to start with a basic question that so many Canadians, and indeed observers around the world, ask: what’s the difference between oilsands and tarsands?
They both refer to the same thing: of the vast oil reserves found in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Unlike conventional sources of oil, though, the oil is mixed with sand and clay. The technical term for that mixture is “bitumen”, which has the colour of oil but is as thick as peanut butter.
And that’s been the technological challenge that Canadian scientists have worked so hard to overcome: how to separate the oil from the sand and clay in an economical way, while protecting the environment.
So it’s oil and sand, not tar. Tar is a chemical substance derived from pine wood, or from coal. There is no tar in the sand in Fort McMurray. It sounds like a simple point.
But calling them the oilsands instead of the tarsands is about more than just being geologically accurate. It’s about being politically accurate, too.
The made-up word tarsands sounds just a little bit dirtier and uglier than oilsands does, which is why so many critics of the oilsands say it. It’s pejorative. But it is just plain inaccurate.
So it’s a useful warning sign when you hear someone saying tarsands: it’s a sign that they don’t mind bending the scientific facts in the name of politics. When I hear an anti-oilsands activist say “tarsands”, especially someone who knows that there’s no tar in them, it immediately makes me ask, “what else are they exaggerating, just to score a political point?”
Because some of the oilsands are at ground level, they were used historically by Aboriginal peoples to waterproof their canoes. The first recorded instance of Europeans seeing the oilsands was in 1719 when a Cree guide named Wa-Pa-Su brought a sample to Henry Kelsey, a trader at York Fort.
It would be another 150 years before an attempt was made to produce the oil, and scientific experiments began in earnest in the 1920s. In 1942 the International Bitumen Company was renamed Oil Sands Ltd., and today that company is known as Suncor, and it is the second-largest company in Canada, smaller only than the Royal Bank.
Canadians have been working on the oilsands for a century, but we’ve only won the world’s attention in the past ten years, as the industry moved from a small-scale experiment to what is now the number once source of U.S. oil imports.
In fact, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that the U.S. government officially recognized the oilsands as legitimate – they were skeptical that the technology was just too unproven to be relied on.
There are an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of oil in the oilsands, and current technology makes about 10% of that economically recoverable. That makes them the second-largest reserves in the world, next to Saudi Arabia.
In 2004, the growth of the oilsands led to an important milestone: that was the year Canada edged out Saudi Arabia as the number one source of U.S. oil imports.
After decades of being at the mercy of OPEC dictatorships, our American friends and allies finally had a local, ethical, secure supply of oil. Today, we export 1.4 million barrels of oilsands oil to the U.S. through pipelines. At current world prices, that’s more than $100 million every single day.
Most of Canada’s oilsands oil is made into gasoline for U.S. cars. And that final product is no different than gasoline made from oil that comes from more conventional sources, like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela and other OPEC countries.
It all burns the same in a car, and because of global commodity prices, it all costs the same. But there is an important moral difference. Because the way we go about producing oil in Canada is superior to any other major oil producer in the world.
As author Ezra Levant outlines in his new book, Ethical Oil, our oil is in keeping with the values that makes Canada great. He lists four in particular: environmentalism; peace; economic justice; and respect for minorities. On each of these criteria, Canadian oil is better than other countries’ oil.
We have become the “fair trade coffee” of the world’s oil industry.
Take the first measure, environmentalism. Respect for our natural environment is a Canadian value as old as Canada itself. And that is reflected not only in our environmental laws and regulations, but the culture of our oil companies as well.
Oilsands mines, like all mines, have tailings – which is the leftover sand and clay after the oil has been removed. Unlike most mines around the world, our laws require that tailings ponds be fully reclaimed once the mine is done.
So far, 65 square kilometers of mines have been fully rehabilitated, replanted with native grasses and trees and repopulated with wildlife including bison.
Pictures of these mines are a staple in fundraising letters of anti-oilsands groups, because they’re unattractive. But just like the use of the phrase “tar sands”, they’re misleading.
Because only 2% of the land area of the oilsands can be mined – in most areas, the bitumen is just too deep. So 98% of the oilsands land will never been dug up that way. It will be recovered by other in situ technologies like steam assisted gravity drainage. These technologies have a very modest footprint on the surface, and forests and wildlife can continue undisturbed.
But the oilsands critics never let truth get in the way of asking for money.
Canada’s ethical approach to the oilsands applies to water use, too. All the oilsands companies combined are only permitted to use just 2% of the flow of the mighty Athabasca River, a limit that is further reduced during periods of low water flow. And new underground, or “in situ” oilsands technologies don’t even need river water at all.
Such rigorous conservation is unthinkable in other oil-producing countries. In Nigeria, for example, there are roughly 2,000 toxic oil spills simply sitting there, with no clean-up even contemplated.
In recent years, concerns about carbon dioxide have been added to traditional pollution. And even by this measure, oilsands oil is ethically superior to many other oil producers.
The Obama administration’s full life-cycle approach to measuring CO2 – from “well to wheels”, taking everything into account from the environmental footprint of Saudi supertankers to Canadian recycling of natural gas – shows that our oilsands oil has a lower carbon footprint than Venezuela’s oil, and an even lower carbon footprint than the oil industry in California, often regarded as an environmentally forward-thinking state (Remember Senator Nancy Pelosi coming to Canada and criticizing our oilsands?).
So here’s a one-question moral test for the oilsands critics: would they rather have the United States import crude oil from countries like Venezuela, which have a higher carbon footprint than Canadian oil?
Americans will be buying their oil from somewhere. Shouldn’t good faith environmentalists who care about carbon dioxide prefer our Canadian oilsands oil, over higher-carbon oil from Venezuela? Because that’s the real-life choice: oilsands oil versus OPEC oil. Who’s side are you on?
Being the world’s environmental leader is an important Canadian value. But it’s not the only one. We’re also the world’s peacekeepers.
At first, that might sound irrelevant to the issue of the oilsands, but it’s not. Because most of the world’s large oil producers are brutal dictatorships who threaten their neighbours with war, and fund terrorists. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, is a medieval-style theocracy. It is a hot-house for Islamic fundamentalism, where 15 out of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 came from.
Iran is another one of the world’s largest oil producers, and it is now the chair of OPEC. Iran is the leading financier of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, giving them money, weapons and training. It is also actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and has threatened to use those weapons against Israel and the West.
Russia and Venezuela are not full-blown dictatorships, but they are belligerent countries, too. In 2008, Russia attacked the neighbouring country of Georgia, and Venezuela has threatened its neighbor Colombia.
None of this warmongering would be possible without the enormous government revenues that these countries derive from oil.
Canada just doesn’t do that. We are the country that invented peacekeeping. It’s not a small point: most of the world’s oil is “conflict oil”. Our oil profits are used for foreign aid, not foreign invasions.
Would you rather buy your oil from an environmentally sensitive country that funds peacekeepers, or from a polluting dictatorship that funds Hamas? It’s a pretty easy ethical question to answer.
Canada’s oil is environmentally superior to OPEC oil. It’s more peaceful than OPEC oil. And it’s more respectful of working men and women than OPEC oil, too.
Saudi Arabia’s oilfields are worked by foreign migrant labourers, with no citizenship rights and working conditions that can border on slavery.
Despite its massive oil reserves, Nigeria is still one of the world’s poorest countries, with half the population earning less than a dollar a day and a life expectancy of just 47.
In Saudi Arabia, the oil wealth is pocketed by the royal family. In Nigeria, it’s been embezzled by fifty years of dictators and bureaucrats.
In Canada, by contrast, even entry-level workers driving a truck in the oilsands can earn in excess of $100,000 a year. That’s fair trade oil.
Some critics – even here in Canada – want us to slow down the oilsands growth, or even put a moratorium on new projects. Some, like Greenpeace and a radical fringe within the NDP, actually want to shut it down.
Honourable colleagues, by what moral code is it acceptable to throw thousands of Canadians out of work, killing high-paying jobs here, just to give more work to countries where the dictators skim all the profits, and low-paid workers with no labour rights just get the scraps? It would be immoral for our government to punish Canadian families by exporting our energy industry jobs to OPEC.
It’s even more immoral, given the abusive manner in which those OPEC countries treat their workers.
There is one more ethical measure that I would like to talk about, and it’s one that we take for granted in Canada: human rights, and respect for minorities. It’s such a natural part of the way we live, we often don’t even notice it. But we should.
Take the mayor of Fort McMurray, a young woman named Melissa Blake. In Canada, it’s completely unremarkable that she’s a young woman mayor. It’s normal. It’s how we live.
But in Saudi Arabia, there are no young women mayors. It’s against the law. Women aren’t even allowed to vote. They’re not even allowed to drive a car.
Canada protects gay rights, too. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, gays are executed.
The oilsands are Canada’s largest employer of Aboriginal people. In Venezuela, Aboriginals who don’t get out of Hugo Chavez’s way are killed.
The human rights abuses in OPEC countries rival that of Apartheid South Africa. In fact, one could say that Saudi Arabia does practice Apartheid – gender apartheid, where women are treated like second-class citizens.
In the 1980s, our country spearheaded the drive to sanction South Africa to free its people. Surely the least we can do in the face of Saudi gender Apartheid is to take as much of the oil market away from Saudi Arabia as we can, to defund their regime.
Canada’s oilsands are an enormous economic engine for our whole country. They’re a secure, strategic source of energy for our allies.
And those things speak to our Canadian values of entrepreneurialism, technological achievement and our strong trade relationship with the United States. But there are so many other aspects of the Canadian character that are evident in every barrel of oilsands oil.
For many people, the only thing that matters about oil is how much it costs. And that’s fair. But to me – and to so many Canadians – living ethically, living up to our Canadian ideals, is important too.
Canada’s oilsands are the most environmentally conscious source of oil in the world. They’re the most peaceful source of oil in the world. They’re the source of oil that is most economically fair to working men and women. And, like everything we do in Canada, it’s all done with a deep respect for minorities, that makes us the envy of the world.
I will let others speak to the numbers that describe the oilsands – the quantitative achievements. But for me, as someone who deeply cares about our Canadian identity, I remain focused on the moral qualities of Canadian oil. It truly is the embodiment of our national character.
Canadian ethical oil has one last element of our national character, though: our excessive modesty.
Most of the time, our national tendency to be humble is admirable. We’re not noisy about our successes – except maybe during international hockey games! But our deferential spirit is actually a problem, when it comes to the oilsands.
Because if we are not bold and proud about the true nature of the oilsands, we risk having them demonized by critics who have their own agenda. And the result of that could be less oil from Canada, and more oil from OPEC.
And when the alternative to Canadian, ethical oil is misogynistic oil from Saudi Arabia that supports terrorism, or oil from gay-bashing Iran that subsidizes that country’s nuclear weapons program, or oil from toxic Nigeria where the profits are embezzled by corrupt officials, our reticence is no longer harmless.
We should always want to improve our standards, and be open to constructive criticism. That is part of the Canadian character, too. I am proud that the industry is continually improving itself. For example, since 1990, the carbon emissions from the average barrel of oilsands oil has fallen by 38%.
One of the things that makes us different from OPEC countries is that we are open to opposing views, and we protect the freedom of people to have dissenting opinions.
When Greenpeace breaks into a Canadian oilsands refinery, we don’t kill them, like they would be in OPEC. When journalists criticize the oilsands, we don’t assassinate them or censor them, like journalists are in OPEC. I love the fact that we are so tolerant of criticism and dissent.
Ironically, that’s why the Greenpeaces of the world are so active here, and so silent about the butchers in Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s precisely because we are the world’s ethical leaders that it’s safe for them to attack our industry and try to kill our jobs. It’s a paradox: Greenpeace lays off the world’s worst countries, precisely because they’re the world’s worst countries. They criticize the world’s gentlest country precisely because we’re the world’s gentlest country.
You’d think they’d focus on the real offenders, the real carbon emitters, the real peace abusers. But that’s too hard for them, too dangerous, and they’ve got their fundraising quotas to fill. That’s why so few Canadians set their moral compass by Greenpeace anymore.
But when viewed through an ethical lens, there is only one conclusion: Canadian oil is the most ethical oil in the world. It is not only an economic blessing to our country, but it is a moral improvement to the global industry as well.
Our national bookstore has a motto: “the world needs more Canada”. It’s a comment on our national values, and I think it rings true for Canadians. I think it can apply to oil, too.
In an industry dominated by OPEC, the world needs more “fair trade, conflict-free, ethical” Canadian oil.