The government of Alberta, Canada and oil industry influence groups are investing in a PR campaign to counter the perception that oil sands mining is environmentally disastrous and worsens global warming pollution.
Much of their effort is being spurred by the prospect of cleaner-fuel mandates across the United States, environmental groups say, which would shift incentives to low-carbon fuels.
"I think that the oil industry is concerned," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programs at the (NRDC).
And they may well have reason to be troubled, observers note, as California moves forward in implementing the nation's first low-carbon fuel standard, or LCFS, with other states expected to follow suit.
The policy would require refineries, producers and importers of motor fuels to cut the "carbon intensity" of their fuel pool. Oil derived from tar sands is a dirtier fuel source than conventional oil, although just how much dirtier is a matter of contention.
Adding to the pressure on Alberta, a proposed project to pipe nearly a million gallons of the unconventional crude per day to Texas refineries, called Keystone XL, is facing unprecedented attention and opposition.
It prompted Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to buy a half-page ad for $58,000 in the Washington Post last month, after an op-ed he submitted in defense of oil sands and the pipeline project was rejected by the paper.
"A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day," the ad said.
The Stelmach ad has been followed by a wider $268,000 launched earlier this month called, "Alberta. Tell it like it is." It is designed to combat the oil sands' negative image within the province.
The campaign website that "emissions from oil sands [is] comparable to other crude oils." A spokesperson for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach that per-barrel emissions have dropped "substantially," by about 40 percent.
Industry in Lockstep
The ad blitz comes on the heels of released last month by the , a Washington, D.C.–based trade group, which said a national LCFS would actually increase global greenhouse gas output by up to 19 million metric tons each year.
Written by Minneapolis-based , the report predicted that the policy would trigger a "crude shuffle" in which Middle Eastern oil would end up replacing Canadian imports to the United States. The displaced oil sands, the report said, would end up being shipped to China in tankers, increasing transport emissions.
Many U.S. observers scoffed at the idea.
Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the (CFR) and prominent voice on energy issues, called it "a distorted and misleading piece of work," in a recent .
Lower U.S. crude consumption "would completely offset the increased transportation emissions that NPRA identifies," he wrote. "An LCFS would also increase the use of alternative fuels and promote greater efficiency in oil operations, which would also reduce emissions..."
Casey-Lekfowitz suggested the report was an act of desperation.
Industry should be backing a federal LCFS to give refineries consistency across the country, she told SolveClimate News. "Instead, they are doing a last-gasp struggle within a context of a country that's clearly trying to move towards a clean energy economy."
Simon Dyer, oil sands director at the , a Canadian environmental organization, said government and industry should focus on its "environmental impact problem" not its "PR problem."
"There are serious gaps in the regulatory framework. There is lots to be done, lots of potential solutions that are not being implemented," he said.
Carbon Footprint Dispute