Environmentalists Push To Keep Canadian Crude In The Ground

January 8, 2015
An excavator loads a truck with oil sands at the Suncor mine near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada in 2009. Environmental groups that oppose oil sands mining have pointed to delayed and canceled projects as a sign of recent success.

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian oil sands down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, isn’t just an infrastructure project. It’s also a symbol for the fight over the future of energy.

Producing oil from Alberta’s tar sands emits more pollution than traditional oil drilling, so many environmentalists want that crude left in the ground. And more broadly, they want the world to turn away from climate-changing fossil fuels toward cleaner forms of energy, like wind and solar.

Mike Hudema, who works with Greenpeace Canada as a climate and energy campaigner, is one of those activists. He says he sympathizes with people who need jobs: He has family members who work in Alberta’s oil fields. Still, Hudema considers it a victory when big oil companies announce delays in new oil sands projects.

Last September, Norway’s Statoil postponed one project for at least three years. Before that, French oil giant Total S.A. shelved a planned project.

“Total cancelled its multi-billion-dollar tar sands project,” Hudema says, “And they’ve stated fairly openly that part of the reason for the cancellation is because of lack of pipeline capacity.”

The Keystone XL pipeline is one project that would boost capacity. And companies do say the ability to transport crude out of Canada is one reason they delay projects. But there are other reasons that are just as important, says Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“It hasn’t been one single pipeline that has been the cause of that re-evaluation,” he says. “It has been labor; it has been competitiveness; it has been the corporate decisions.”

Those corporate decisions include the question of where a global company will choose to invest its money. And today — especially with low oil prices — it’s not hard to find more lucrative investments.

The Keystone XL approval delay is just one setback for an industry Stringham says has a bright future. Canada’s oil sands produced more than 2 million barrels of crude per day last year.

New projects are in the works, Stringham says, and output will grow.

“It is to the point where it has gone from just a Canadian industry to a North American industry and we’re on the verge of moving it to a global industry,” he says.

So, Stringham says, companies aren’t waiting for the Keystone XL pipeline. There are other ways to move oil: trains, barges and alternate pipelines. He says as long as the U.S. and the world wants oil, Alberta will find a way to supply it.

For opponents who want to keep that oil in the ground, like Hudema at Greenpeace, that means more battles ahead.

“When we talk about tar sands development we’re talking about going against the biggest carbon bullies on the plant,” Hudema says. “Every major multinational oil company is involved in this development.”

Comparing their resources to his, Hudema says he thinks environmental groups are doing a pretty good job. And every day that Alberta’s tar sands oil stays in the ground is another victory.

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