A spokeswoman for oil companies discussed myriad controversial issues facing her industry and the mining of oil sands in Alberta, Canada, as part of a panel at the University of Montana Friday, but offered few specific solutions.
The discussion, part of the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, ranged form water quality and changes to the Alberta landscape to the so-called “big rigs” that are scheduled to transport massive mining equipment through Idaho and Montana to Canada.
The focus on Canada’s oil reserves, especially in light of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, means the industry Jane Annesley represents is looking at producing a potential 170 billion barrels of oil, second only to Saudi Arabia’s output.
Annesley, vice-president of communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and a native Canadian, addressed a multitude of questions raised by environmentalists and citizens in the U.S. and Canada regarding the extraction.
Her industry, she said, “could do better” in regard to environmental impacts on water quality and contamination from tailings, but that it’s happy to work with scientists and experts while moving forward with the oil sands mining projects. “I believe we have the opportunity to turn this into a blessing,” she said.
She said they work to monitor the environmental impacts of projects, but are open to more input. “Are we perfect? Not by any stretch,” she said.
Asked about the controversy in the West surrounding ConocoPhillips’ and Imperial Oil’s transport of giant oil modules over Lolo Pass on U.S. Highway 12, Annesley said, “A lot of infrastructure is needed to mine oil sands,” said Annesley. “The issues with the transport of those modules will be regulated by the state.”
She called oil sands mining an “interdependent relationship” between the U.S. and Canada. “Remember, they [the modules] are being used to produce oil coming back down to the States,” she said.
When asked whether oil companies should assess the environmental impacts of the big rigs, Annesley said that, while she doesn’t speak for Imperial Oil (principally owned by ExxonMobile), oil companies will be sure to follow guidelines from state authorities. “We deeply seek to be in compliance with the law,” she said.
Queen’s University biology professor Peter Hodson, also on Friday’s panel, put Annesley on the spot, questioning the research. The mining projects, he said, should have oversight from scientists not connected to the oil companies or the Alberta government, which has investments in oil sands mining. “The science right now is clearly paid for by the industry,” he said. “There’s a clear conflict of interest.”
Another panelist, Peter Hodson, oil and gas industry program director for the nonprofit Ceres, described his organization–which formed six months after the Exxon-Valdez spill by a group investors — as “neither for, nor against” oil sands mining. But he said he, too, wants to see more independent research. “The accumulative impacts haven’t been measured,” he said. “The broader picture, that’s what’s missing.”
Annesley said oil companies funded Canadian environmental studies out of goodwill. “We thought we were doing a good thing by funding some of these studies, but it’s being used against us,” she said. “The Alberta taxpayers have made it clear they don’t want to pay for it.”
Annesley also addressed an environmental group’s recent accusations, stemming from its translation of Korean reports, to keep Highway 12 as a “high and wide” corridor to move oil equipment far beyond the initial delivery to Alberta.
“There seems to be disagreement between what they thought they agreed to and what they bought,” Annesley said. “But only the first phase of the project has been approved.”
Annesley was also asked about the quality of the pipelines being used, with implications companies are buying cheaper pipe made in China. “I don’t speak for the pipeline industry,” she said.
The sole tense moment of the late-morning panel came when Annesley, while answering a woman’s question about First Nation rights, noticed the woman had bent to speak to someone next to her. “Are you listening to my answer? You seem like you’re not listening,” Annesley said. “I’m listening,” the woman said, and Annesley carried on.
The panel didn’t end with any definitive conclusions from any of the experts, except perhaps the general agreement that more scientific assessment on oil sands mining is needed. “The impact is so large and so great, the bar should be set very high,” Logan said.