Environmental groups launched an ad campaign today starkly portraying the mining of oil sands of Alberta, Canada as a disaster on par with the Gulf crisis. The goal is to lure U.S. tourists away from the province.
Corporate Ethics International (CEI) and a network of green groups unfurled billboards in four cities using striking imagery of oil-coated dead birds in Alberta to drive home its point on the oil sands. The effort comes as Alberta finds itself under unprecedented scrutiny for plans to build a pipeline to move the tar-like crude from Canada to the Gulf.
"Americans ought to know that their future oil supply Canada is trying to sell to them is a disaster that's on par with the gulf oil disaster." Michael Marx, executive director of CEI, told SolveClimate. "We think if they know about that, they're going to be less inclined to visit Alberta."
Billboards went up on Wednesday in Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland and Denver — cities that send the highest percentage of American tourists to the province.
The signs declare, "Alberta: The Other Oil Disaster." A similar campaign will kick off in the United Kingdom in August.
The slogan is set against two nearly identical images. One is of a brown pelican coated in oil in the Gulf of Mexico's Deepwater Horizon spill; and the other is of two dead ducks smothered in tar in an oil sands tailings pond.
It says in smaller print, "Thinking of visiting Alberta Canada? Think again."
"There really are two oil disasters," Marx said. "One is an accident – unforgiveable but still an accident. The other one is intentional in Alberta, and it will destroy an area the size of Michigan."
Jay O'Neill, spokesman for Alberta Energy, scoffed at the idea that there are any parallels between the BP oil crisis and the oil sands.
"The gulf oil spill is a terrible situation and to compare the two is ridiculous," O'Neill told SolveClimate in an email.
"Alberta has stringent legislation and on-the-ground measures in place to protect our air, land, habitat and water during oil and gas development," he added. "We are also committed to ongoing improvement with oil sands development to ensure we are among the most environmentally responsible energy producers anywhere."
A Multi-Year Campaign
For years, environmental groups have been raising the oil sands issue to raise the awareness of media and shareholders of oil majors.
The unconventional crude is locked in a tar-like sludge called bitumen. Extracting the substance is highly energy intensive, releasing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude. Industry officials say full lifecycle emissions of oil from bitumen is only about 15 percent greater than conventional sources. The process destroys pristine boreal forests and contaminates about three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced, leaving sprawling, toxic tailings ponds that can endanger wildlife and public health.
In June, an Alberta Provincial Court judge found Syncrude, the largest producer in the oil sands, guilty in the deaths of 1,600 migratory waterfowl that were poisoned in one of its tailings ponds.
A recent study by the Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council has estimated that over the next 30 to 50 years up to 166 million migratory birds could die from the lost habitat and mining operations in Alberta.
Production of oil sands is now at about 1.3 million barrels per day, and is expected to increase 40 percent by 2020, according to a new estimate by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Tailings ponds that are said to be full of phenols, arsenic, mercury and carcinogens covered around 50 square miles in 2009.
The U.S. is Canada's largest oil sands customer, making up around four percent of the nation's oil product imports. According to projections, that could skyrocket to 30 percent by 2030 – if grassroots efforts to slow growth falter.
Marx did not disclose how much the organization will spend on the campaign, called "Rethink Alberta," but he did say it was "going to be one of our top priorities" and that it will last multiple years.
"There's no end date ... We expect it to go on for several years," he said.
In addition to billboards, the campaign will draw heavily on social media with a full website, RethinkAlberta, online banner and flash ads on major tourism websites and google ad buys for search terms like "Alberta" and "tourism" to help direct Internet users to its website.
Marx said that the campaign is also about trying to persuade business to stop establishing offices in the province.
"We think it will have implications not just for tourism but also for the willingness of companies to do business there and to establish headquarters or affiliates there," Marx said.
A number of U.S. groups are backing the effort, including Rainforest Action Network, Forest Ethics, Global Community Monitor and Friends of the Earth.
In Canada, Marx said the campaign would have mostly "silent" supporters, suggesting that was for their protection.
"We're expecting a lot of backlash from Alberta," Marx said.
O'Neill downplayed that suggestion. He stated that the government is more focused "on providing information proactively that provides proper context about the challenges of oil sands development and how we're overcoming those challenges."
"That is being done in a number of ways through things like international missions with elected officials, such as our Premier Ed Stelmach and other ministers, and developing a number of advocacy opportunities to tell our story and answer questions about oil sands development to various audiences, including those in the United States," O'Neill said.
The tourism industry in Alberta is a $5 billion dollar a year business for the province, attracting millions of visitors per year. It employs more than 109,000 people, according to government figures.
In 2009, Alberta launched a $25 million international advertising campaign to rebrand its image after finding itself under a barrage of oil sands-related criticism.
The new corporate brand is, "Freedom to create, spirit to achieve." The full ad campaign featured newspaper, television and radio spots.
Marx said he expects the government to significantly ramp up its public relations and promote the tar sands as being "green."
"We think that they're obviously sensitive to how they're perceived, and we don't want them to get away with being able to present an image of being environmentally friendly when in fact they're promoting the most environmentally destructive project on the planet," Marx said.
"Alberta knows, as does industry, that we must lessen the environmental footprint associated with all resource development," O'Neill said in response.
"In fact, Alberta has already taken strides – putting a price on carbon, for instance," he added.
Keystone Decision Critical
According to Marx, the campaign's "big goal" is to end expansion of the oil sands. Key to that, he said, is blocking approval of a $7 billion pipeline under review by the U.S. Department of State.
The Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed by TransCanada, the country's biggest power company, would carry tar sands oil 2,000 miles from Alberta, across many states and the largest underground aquifer in the U.S., to refineries in Texas and tankers off the coast.
The pipeline would import up to 900,000 barrels a day and double U.S. consumption of the fuel source.
Prior to the Gulf oil disaster it was seen as nearly a done deal. But the agency is suddenly feeling the heat.
"There's indications from the state department that they're feeling much more pressure than they originally expected on this campaign," Marx said.
In late June, 50 members of Congress issued a letter to Secretary of State Clinton urging her against hasty approval of the project. The lawmakers said the pipeline would do undue environmental harm and could be another Gulf crisis in the making due to poor safety protocols that TransCanada is proposing in the design.
A final decision by the State Department is expected in the fall.
Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), chair of U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, followed up with his own four-page letter of concern to Secretary Clinton, calling the plan "a step in the wrong direction."
"The State Department's decision on whether to permit this pipeline represents a critical choice about America's energy future," Waxman wrote. "This pipeline is a multi-billion dollar investment to expand our reliance on the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available."