Rebranding the oil sands: without concrete action, efforts to portray Canada as a clean energy superpower are likely to fail.

AuthorNimijean, Richard

In January 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed his fifth environment minister in five years. Peter Kent immediately declared that oil from Alberta's oil sands was "ethical." Echoing Ezra Levant's argument that Canadian oil was ethical because proceeds strengthened Canadian democracy and society and did not support tyranny or injustice, (1) Kent vowed to confront "the slander and disinformation of outright lies" about the oil sands.

Barely a month later, political turmoil in oil-producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa provided a boost to Levant's argument. Defenders of the Canadian oil patch asked if foreign customers should buy oil from unstable countries like Libya with dictators like Muammar Gaddafi.

Yet as I finish this article, President Obama has illustrated the challenge Canada faces in developing and promoting its oil sands. Days after identifying Canada as one of the most important sources of secure and reliable oil (a message promoted by the Canadian government), Obama said that the potentially "destructive" nature of the tar sands (the less friendly descriptor used by environmental critics of the oil sands) had to be addressed before his administration would approve the Keystone XL pipeline to send Canadian crude oil to American refineries. Something is obviously not working as far as Canada's energy and environmental reputation is concerned.

It's not for lack of trying. The Conservative government has been trying to rebrand Canada's image abroad by linking energy supplies and the ongoing extraction of resources to environmentalism and democratic ideals. The effort has been to deflect global attention away from the environmental consequences of oil sands activity in order to promote the development of the oil sands. However, without concrete actions that support the brand message, this is a risky strategy that could very well fail.


The oil sands and Canada's environmental image

The oil sands account for 95 per cent of Canadian oil reserves, making Canada the second leading source of proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. They are expected to add $789 billion to the Canadian economy between 2000 and 2020. (2)

Not surprisingly, development of the oil sands has been a priority for the federal and Alberta governments. Canada has been pursuing foreign investment in the oil sands while also trying to develop markets by promising--notably to the Americans and the Chinese--that Canada can deliver secure and reliable oil. Describing the oil sands in their natural state as "nature's biggest unusable oil spill," (3) Prime Minister Harper has compared their development to the building of the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

This is not the view generally held, however; indeed, the oil sands have created an image problem for Canada, bringing attention to this country's poor environmental record. The Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada 15th out of 17 peer countries in its 2009 environmental performance report card, noting particularly poor performances in the areas of climate change, smog and waste generation. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise; by 2007, emissions were 34 per cent higher than Canada's Kyoto target and 26 per cent higher than 1990 levels (as opposed to the promised 6 per cent decrease). (4) With less than 0.5 per cent of the world's population, Canada produces 2 per cent of global emissions. The accompanying figures summarize Canada's performance in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

The oil sands contribute to Canada's worsening emissions record, producing 5 per cent of Canadian carbon emissions, a figure expected to rise to 16 per cent in the next decade. Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), while emissions in other G8 countries fall, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase as a result of "an expanding exploitation of the tar sands." (5)


Visual cues have helped environmentalists make their case against the oil sands. The 2008 deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed in oil sands tailing ponds, followed by the deaths of another 200 ducks in 2010, even made Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speak out in frustration as he worried about the impact of these deaths on Alberta's image. (6)

Environmentalists, supported by indigenous peoples and celebrities, have led the charge against the oil sands and Canada's promotion of the industry. For example, high-profile Inuit leader Mary Simon spoke of "Canada's shameful inaction on climate

change," setting out the facts and figures as well as the experience of how global warning...

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