Sept/Oct 2009

A fine balance

OSDG president Don Thompson discusses his efforts to set the record straight on the oil sands debate

By M. Paduada

Over the last few years, oil sands development has attracted a lot of debate in the media and in policy forums. Current oil sands projects are a significant component of the Canadian economy, supporting hundreds of thousands people in directly and indirectly related jobs. Approved and proposed oil sands projects promise to increase that impact substantially and maintain it for decades. However, oil sands critics cite concerns about emissions, land use and water management, presenting reports advocating measures that would slow down or halt oil sands development.

Enter Don Thompson. Thompson is the president of the Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG) and general manager of regulatory and external relations at Syncrude. In his role at the OSDG, he has been meeting with people and giving presentations across Canada, the American Midwest and Europe to ensure that the industry’s perspectives are factored into the debates. He was invited to be a CIM Distinguished Lecturer and is slated to meet CIM members at local branches from fall 2009 through 2010. CIM Magazine recently spoke with Thompson to discuss some of the hot topic issues surrounding the oil sands.

CIM: The title of your presentation is called “Setting the Record Straight.” What are you trying to set straight?

Thompson: I’ve been an oil sands employee for 30 years. During that time, I believe I played a role in fostering the development of an industry that is now the cornerstone of the Canadian economy. What bothers me is that a lot of that success has attracted detractors, most of whom are not providing the full story. What they are providing is misinformation around oil sands issues that I think have been well-managed. I’m seeking to create a balance in the discussion by providing the full perspective on whatever the particular issue of concern may be.

The OSDG has tried to address some of the concerns that people raise, whether it involves land disturbance, water use or greenhouse gas emissions, by laying out the other side of the story: Here’s the concern that we’ve heard, here’s what the facts are, and here’s what we’re doing to make it better. My presentation and other information provided by the OSDG are available at

CIM: Groups that advocate slowing down or stopping oil sands development seem to be at direct odds with the OSDG. Is it even possible for you to engage them in a dialogue?

Thompson: First of all, I find that a lot of the assertions being made are somewhat naïve. I don’t deny that, as a society, we will eventually move to an increased use of renewable energy sources. In fact, I encourage that. The industry’s critics would advocate that it can be accomplished overnight and that we can dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels or oil sands in a very short time period. I think that is economically naïve. I believe that the better thing to do is to use the time that oil sands reserves will allow us, and the wealth that they will bring us, to move towards alternate forms of energy. So what I argue most about is timescale — it’s simply not practical, in a short period of time, to move the whole North American energy economy. In addition, we can’t do so unless our economy is robust and generating a tremendous amount of wealth. I think the oil sands’ role is in providing that timeframe and providing that wealth.

CIM: Is it possible for oil sands companies to take a more direct role in building capacity for renewable energy sources?

Thompson: Our members are energy companies, and to the degree that they see the energy economy moving in other directions, they will naturally seek to invest in profitable energy forms for the future. As an industry association, that is not something we can have a role in. But, for the companies that invest in energy production, this will naturally be something that our members would look at to the degree that it fits their investment futures.

CIM: Do you think the work you’ve done has improved the quality of the dialogue, and is that visibly impacting opinions?

Thompson: I probably give 10 to 12 speeches a month throughout Canada, the American Midwest and Europe, and I do a lot of media work. I think in that process I have at least managed to get the dialogue a little more balanced — and that’s really all I want. People can form whatever opinion they like on their own, but I want them to do so in a fully informed manner. In other words, I want them to hear both sides of the story and then go away and think for themselves. I feel we’re seeing many more instances of balanced discussion in the media and other forums over the last year or so as a result of our efforts and those of many others who have attempted to inject balance into the story.

CIM: Where does consensus occur? Is that something that is purely left to legislative and regulatory bodies, or is there a public forum where people and organizations may be able to find it?

Thompson: I think the consensus lies in the regulatory forum because that’s where projects are approved. That’s where governments lay out society’s expectations in the form of terms and conditions, approvals and the like. So, from a formal point of view, I think the consensus forum is where it’s at.

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