Until the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April and a massive slick oozed across the Gulf of Mexico, environmentalists had managed to dramatically shift public opinion in the U.S. against the Alberta oil sands. Now, as crude-soaked birds wash up on Louisiana shores, Canadian officials are seizing the opportunity to brand Fort McMurray crude as the clean, safe alternative to offshore drilling. It’s a message environmental groups are desperate to undermine.
As the full scale of the Gulf disaster became clear earlier this month, Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice declared the risks from the oil sands are “probably less than the kind of risks associated with offshore drilling.” Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said any spill from oil sands pipelines would be far easier to contain. But environmentalists have been quick to strike back. “The oil sands are NOT the safer alternative to offshore drilling,” Danielle Droitsch, director of U.S. policy at the Pembina Institute, wrote last week.
“The Gulf oil spill is not an opportunity to claim the oil sands are something they’re not: safer, cleaner or more secure.”
Last week, in a report about the growing flow of oil sands crude to Europe, Greenpeace attempted to link the Alberta project with the oil spill since British Petroleum, which leased the Gulf rig, is also investing heavily in the oil sands. Meanwhile, environmental groups stepped up pressure on oil sands companies by targeting their investors. Ahead of the upcoming annual meetings for Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, Ceres, a coalition of environmental groups and institutional investors, put out a report examining the oil sands’ environmental and ﬁnancial risks. In a statement, the group questioned whether the oil sands could in fact be “riskier than Gulf oil drilling.”
The stakes are huge for oil sands producers as they attempt to win support from Washington lawmakers. So as the fallout from the oil spill worsens, expect those on both sides of the oil sands debate to pump up their rhetoric even more.