A Matter of Fact: Wall Street Journal misrepresents the oil sands

Article ignores the industry’s solid track record reducing environmental impacts

By Deborah Jaremko
Worker at a constructed wetland reclamation project at Suncor Energy's oil sands base mine. Photo courtesy Suncor Energy

A Jan. 13 article in the Wall Street Journal about Canada’s oil sands is filled with misinformation that ignores the industry’s solid track record reducing environmental impacts, and its appeal to investors as a leader in energy cleantech and a global supplier of choice.   

Here’s what they got wrong.  

WSJ: Oil sands cover an 88,000-square-mile area in northeast Alberta

Wrong. Oil sands deposits underlie an area of about 55,000 square miles (142,000 square kilometres). Just three per cent of that area, or about 1,800 square miles, will ever be used for oil sands mining. 

The actual footprint of the industry is even less. Most of the development is in the Athabasca oil sands region, where all oil and gas impacts about 1,200 square miles, or under three per cent of the total land area, according to the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute.  

Oil sands mining companies alone doubled the land reclaimed since 2009, reaching over 8,000 hectares in 2019, according to BMO Capital Markets. Oil sands producers have also collectively planted more than 25 million trees.  

WSJ: Oil sands is “one of the world’s dirtiest oil patches”

Wrong. Oil sands producers are working harder to reduce emissions than producers in other jurisdictions, and several projects now have greenhouse gas emissions per barrel lower than the global average, BMO Capital Markets analysts report.  

Oil sands emissions intensity decreased 27 per cent since 2013, compared to just 13 per cent for other global producers, according to BMO. A further reduction of up to 27 per cent is expected by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).  

The IEA says the industry’s “strong track record” is thanks to large investments in technology and environmental protection. Oil and gas producers are Canada’s largest spenders on energy cleantech, reaching a record $1.6 billion in 2019, according to the latest ranking by Research InfoSource.  

Major oil sands producers have jointly committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050. 

WSJ: Oil sands developments — particularly tailings ponds — “are arguably the most visible human scars on the planet”

Wrong. Tailings settling basins in the oil sands cover approximately 175 square kilometres, or about 68 square miles. By comparison, China’s Three Gorges Dam includes a 386-square-mile artificial lake reservoir. The reservoir’s construction submerged villages and cities and displaced millions of people 

In the oil sands, producers are seeing success in their efforts to reduce tailings production and storage, having spent more than $10 billion collectively to address the challenge.  

For example, thanks to new technology Suncor Energy has reduced total tailings at its oil sands base plant by 10 per cent since 2010. According to BMO Capital Markets, growth of tailings ponds has “trended substantially lower since 2015” thanks to “notable acceleration” of new technology.  

“We believe that tailings management will be an important and exciting area to keep an eye on in coming years, and that it could act as a catalyst for the sector to vastly improve its image on the world stage,” analysts report. 

WSJ: Investment in existing oil sands projects has stalled, and banks are refusing to fund new ones

Wrong. Alberta oil production reached a record 3.8 million barrels per day in October 2021 and is expected to continue growing, particularly as new pipeline capacity comes online.  

In October 2021 the first new major oil export pipeline was completed since 2015, and construction is underway on the Trans Mountain expansion, which will give Canada its first large-scale access to global oil markets.  

Savvy investors remain attracted to Canada’s oil producers, understanding the opportunity for economic benefit as global oil demand continues to increase, while playing a critical role reducing emissions. Investors like John Graham, CEO of Canada’s pension fund, CPP Investments.  

The planet will struggle to transition without the expertise of the more conventional energy players,” Graham said in June 2021. 

We certainly have a view that … many of these energy companies will be leaders going forward.” 

Renowned financial leader Larry Fink has gone as far as to call investors walking away from oil and gas “greenwashing,” as it only causes production to change hands, often into the control of less transparent actors that are not as committed to environmental improvement. 

The unaltered reproduction of this content is free of charge with attribution to Canadian Energy Centre Ltd.