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What I Saw with a German Tour of the Oilsands

Strangely, it wasn't the oilsands anyone can find on the Internet.

Andrea Rexer 4 Oct

Andrea Rexer is a German journalist with a Burns Fellowship grant to work at The Tyee for two months. Back home she heads the Frankfurt office of one of Germany's biggest daily national newspapers, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, covering economics and finance. Andrea studied in Germany and Chile and has worked from Vienna, Austria, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and several cities in Germany. In 2014 she earned the Ludwig Erhard prize for economic journalism. On Twitter: @andrearexer.

When a foreign delegation was invited by Alberta to view the oilsands, this is what they saw: humming high tech, no destruction of the landscape. Not more, really, than a few scratches in the earth.

But some visitors didn't quite believe what they were seeing.

Last month I joined a delegation of German officials and business people curious to learn how Canada exploits its oilsands.

We were taken by the oil company Cenovus to Christina Lake (about 150 kilometers south of Fort McMurray) and shown where steam is injected underground to melt tarry bitumen, which is then sucked out in a process called SAGD. From above, the drilling operation looked like a gigantic spider. In the middle of the drilling platform, brown buildings stood on pillars. From each side, eight long silver pipelines reached out, bent and then disappeared into the soil. It was quiet. You could not smell oil. You could not even see any oil. Nevertheless, here, we were told by representatives of Cenovus, their company extracts around 20,000 barrels of oil from Alberta's soil every day.

With permission I climbed up the stairs of the brown buildings and, peering inside, saw all kinds of high tech instruments. Not a single human being was around. The staff drops by only four times a day to check if everything is ok. The rest of the day, the instruments keep control of the whole site, their data tracked from the main hub of Cenovus' platform in Christina Lake or as far away as Calgary.

High powered group

Members of the German delegation who visited the platform seemed at first deeply impressed. "I hadn't imagined that there is so much high tech involved," said one. He was here with a German-Canadian networking group that aims to foster dialogue between the two countries and which had arranged a Calgary conference focusing on energy. This field trip from that conference included several politicians and businessmen, among them the vice president of the German Parliament and some senior managers from big German companies like Siemens. They invited me to come along if I agreed not to quote anyone directly by name. I accepted because in this case it was important what was said, not who said it.

We were only one entry in a busy calendar for the government of Alberta and the companies working in the oilsands, which give tours of various oilsands sites to a lot of people -- 8,500 last year. There is even an airline, Sunwest, whose only purpose is to regularly fly visitors and employees to this part of northern Alberta.

The goal of hosting groups like ours is to convince people from abroad that the oilsands aren't as bad as activists, First Nations and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio or Neil Young say they are. Positive impressions and sound bites often result. U.S. Republican senator Lindsey Graham, for example, concluded after a trip to Fort McMurray that the label "dirty oil" wasn't fair and should instead be "acceptably clean."

The best way to impress people from Germany is to show them technology. And that's exactly what Cenovus did on this trip. But not everyone was swayed. "Is that a Potemkin village, or what?" one businessman asked of his tour guides. He had expected to see big machines, a lot of dirt, and the moon landscape he had seen in pictures of the oilsands. "Maybe they put up this site only for visitors?" he questioned. "This is way too clean to be real. I assume other platforms don’t look like this one."

But our delegation did not get to see any other oil sands excavation operations, nor were we given any opportunity to see oilsands mining at its dirtiest.

Show and tell

In the recreation center owned by Cenovus in Christina Lake, the group was ushered into a question-and-answer session. We were asked to take off our shoes at the entrance, something you only do in Germany when you enter a private home but never in a business arena. People were baffled. "Huh? They want to create a cozy atmosphere as if we were at some friend's living room," one delegate laughed.

We passed down a hallway decorated with posters of wild animals and slogans like "Glide like an eagle," as well as signs inviting employees to take free yoga classes. Past the fitness room we were guided into the gym, where, on a large screen, we watched a presentation by Cenovus that explained how underground steam injection works.

The manager was very careful not to criticize surface mining of the oilsands. Still, he said, "Compared to oilsand mines, the drilling sites only destroy one tenth of the surface. And this method is going to be the future of oilsands as 80 per cent of the reserves can only be developed by drilling, not by mining." The mining he refered to has already destroyed roughly 167,044 hectares of surface, requiring the construction of 176 km of toxic tailings ponds.

Some of the visitors posed tough questions: "Even though it is less visible, I assume that drilling affects the groundwater and the wildlife that is living in this area. You heat up the soil and extract huge amounts of oil. That cannot be without consequences, right?"

The manager replied: "We don't promise that the nature is unchanged after we have been there, but we do our best to return it to nature after we have left. And hopefully it will look like we had never been there." He mentioned that steam injection consumes energy in its own right -- by burning natural gas -- but he didn't make it clear that drilling this way consumes on average even more energy than mining.

Instead, without explaining he was doing so, he averaged mining and drilling approaches to come up with a figure intended to comfort.

"Compared to other oil crudes, Alberta's oilsands produce on average only five per cent more emissions," said the manager. Each site differs, depending on the quality of the sand and the technique used. That's why figures are hard to compare. Cenovus uses only two barrels of steam to produce one barrel of oil. Other companies use up to six barrels of steam, he said.

"Hmmm, even two barrels of steam seem to be a lot. Remember that gigantic flame we saw heating up that tank of water? That’s got to mean a lot of energy," a politician whispered. (Some googling later turned up that the European Union has calculated that producing oilsands crude generates 22 per cent more emissions than the standard for fuels used in Europe. The oil industry has said the EU overestimated that figure.)

Different takeaways

Soon it was apparent to me that the delegation was dividing. One group asked questions to get at the specifics of the high tech equipment while the other asked about environmental and societal issues related to the oilsands.

Diagram of drilling operation
Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage process. Image courtesy of TreeHugger.

How happy are First Nations with the oilsands? One delegate wanted to know, and the group was told that such relations in Alberta are "very good," but that there would be challenges in British Columbia with pipeline projects connecting the oilsands to the coast. They were told about the decision of the Supreme Court in the Tsilhqot'in case, and the new powers it might accord First Nations in allowing large energy projects to go forward. But no member of a First Nation was present to be asked first hand. The group was assured that many members of First Nations work in the oilsands. Still, the delegation did not see a single one on the sites.

I wanted to know what happens to the five per cent of water used in steam injection that cannot be recycled. The answer was vague. It gets pumped back into the ground. “What??” There was some back and forth as I tried to understand the purpose and effect of pumping unrecycled water underground but I gave up, concluding no clear answer would be forthcoming.

After putting on their shoes again, the group was more divided than before. Some had come to believe that Alberta's oilsands aren't as bad as they are pictured. Others now had more questions and concerns than they had come with.

Would these Germans want to import oil from Canada? "Hmmm. Well, it isn't really possible yet, right? There are no pipelines," offered one member. Still, oilsands crude flows south to the United States where it is refined, and from there increasing amounts of it could be shipped to Europe if the demand is there.

Tour done, back in the hotel, one of the politicians made a speech. "In Germany we have a saying that sometimes you cannot see the wood because there are too many trees. Let's focus on the wood: We need to reduce any carbon emissions, no matter how oil is produced."

In other words: If Canadians want to persuade Germans to buy their oil, they are up against a powerful counterargument. However high tech the approach, as extracting oil becomes more difficult and energy and emissions intensive, alternative forms of energy, and conservation, become attractive alternatives.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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