May 2009

The National Geographic article on oil sands mining

An alternative view

By G. Winkel

Measuring tree growth to monitor reclamation success on the slopes of Syncrude’s Southwest Sand Storage


The following open letter was written in response to an article and accompanying photo essay that appeared in National Geographic Magazine in March, 2009 entitled: “The Canadian Oil Boom — Scraping Bottom.” *

What a disappointing article on the oil sands. Through the years we have grown to appreciate the quality of this magazine’s efforts to showcase the world, displaying the diversity of its people, portraying the forces and complexity of nature, and sharing the emerging research that seeks to understand our rich history and origins. Now, surprisingly, this article departs from the publication’s usually sound efforts to provide a balanced view: one that considers both challenge and opportunity. The oil sands has recently been the target of misinformation and flawed representations, and the current article has unfortunately worked to favour these distorted perspectives.

I, like so many, have lived and worked in Alberta, Canada’s Athabasca oil sands, and the cited article does a real disservice to the people, communities and industry in the region.

While the editorial in question provides some balance in its written content, it contains descriptions that are metaphorically damaging, and the accompanying photo essay ignores the reality of responsible development that is available for all to understand. Where, for example, are the pictures of reclaimed land returned to a boreal forest state, or of the 300 bison grazing on these lands, or of the reconstructed watersheds that win awards for environmental innovation and cutting-edge reclamation research?

What in the article shows a thriving and vibrant community in Fort McMurray, a safe environment for children, quality health care, educational opportunities, and a place that people are proud to call home?  Fort McMurray provides a setting that rivals many cities in terms of quality of life for its residents.

What is communicated to explain the commitment of industry leaders and the vision that inspired the development of new and innovative technologies to synergistically improve both environmental and economic performance in the oil sands?

From an environmental standpoint there are important considerations to share. Actual land disturbance to date of the North American boreal forest totals less than a couple of hundredths of one per cent — an area less than that of either of the two nearest major cities, Edmonton and Calgary. Also, it should be borne in mind that significant areas have already been reclaimed as operations progress and all disturbed land will be reclaimed as operations conclude.  Syncrude Canada Ltd. alone has planted some five million trees and shrubs, reclaimed 4,500 hectares (22 per cent) of disturbed lands, recycles 88 per cent of its process water, has significantly reduced energy intensity by researching and pioneering low-temperature extraction technologies, has spent $100 million on reclamation since 2003, and will spend an estimated $1.6 billion to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 60 per cent.

From a community perspective, the people in the region demonstrate their care and commitment through significant volunteerism and often contribute more than any other community in Canada to annual United Way campaigns, based on per capita donations. There are significant efforts to support education regionally and provincially, and equally significant is the work done to encourage Aboriginal education, employment and business development. It has been a wonderful experience to work with an army of community volunteers that helps those in need of  support, provides an impressive array of wholesome activities for young and old, and makes improvements to the utility and appearance of local facilities. Additionally the air quality in Fort McMurray is also rated as good or better than that in Edmonton, Calgary or Toronto. Contrary to the impression portrayed in the article, this is truly a great place to work and raise a family.

The oil sands also contribute positively to the economy of Canada. Within the confines of the minimal land disturbance described previously comes some 50 per cent of Canada’s energy requirements. There are approximately a quarter  of a million jobs linked to the oil sands, and development there in the period from 2000 to 2020 has the potential to generate an estimated $123 billion for provincial and federal governments in the form of royalty and tax revenues. Contrary to the article, industry leaders whom we have had the pleasure and privilege of working with are also genuinely focused on the future, and have supported education, community investment, regional infrastructure working groups and environmental consortiums to ensure responsible development of the oil sands.

This is the story that also needs to be told on behalf of the people, communities and industry that have worked to develop the oil sands into the success it is today, providing a safe and sustainable energy source serving our society now and into the future.

Gord Winkel
Fort McMurray, Alberta
Chair, Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology

* Kunzig, R. (2009, March). The Canadian Oil Boom — Scraping Bottom. National Geographic. Photography by Peter Essick.

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