By Don Martin, Canwest News ServiceFebruary 25, 2009
It opens to a three-page aerial spread of pristine boreal forest dotted with lakes beaming through the trees as a luminescent robin-egg blue. This is the "before" picture.
Flip over the fold-out at the front of this month's National Geographic magazine and you're confronted by the "after" photo, a ground zero of environmental devastation, with sickly grey ponds bisected by slick roadways prowled by mammoth trucks carrying now-discounted black gold.
This photo shoot for the magazine's influential global audience is described as the "baby-seal moment" for Alberta's oilsands, a public relations hell equal to a seal pup's skull-clubbing death that no amount of damage control can overcome, no matter how reasoned the argument.
Alberta's man in Washington, D.C., received an advance copy of the article earlier this month. He rushed it to Premier Ed Stelmach's office. The government spin doctors in Edmonton searched the 24-page spread, entitled "Scraping Bottom," for a glimmer of positive coverage, but the only rainbows they found were caused by oil slicks.
It's difficult to assess the negative fallout this could have on hard-selling the oilsands to a world increasingly confronted by books, articles and photos describing the concept as an emerging dirty-oil holocaust.
But when National Geographic, easily the world's most influential nature magazine with 50 million readers in 32 languages, profiled Calgary in the late 1990s, giddy civic officials noted an immediate rush of wealthy tourist bookings that held up for years.
This article will be the reverse image of that promotional bonanza.
Add in photos of the tar ponds in all their toxic duck-killing glory, the gouging out of oozing craters visible from space, the inexplicably discoloured fish, the workforce crush and an opinionated narrative documenting the "riveting sight" of the area's "dark satanic mills" which discharge chemicals that "sting your lungs when you get close enough" and, well, it's a black eye which may never fade away.
"Nobody does pictures like National Geographic," sighed one Alberta government insider. "Too bad they didn't include something from the buffalo paddocks where Syncrude has a 99.8-per- cent calving success rate."
Wait a minute. The buffalo roam? On the oilsands? Gosh, do the deer and the antelope play there too?
Turns out there is a buffalo paddock with actual animals munching grass on a former oilsands pit, even though no official reclamation certificate has yet been issued by the Alberta government.
But that's not enough to undo the increasingly awful reputation of the messy extraction effort. And even though the oilsands have historically leaked into the bordering Athabasca River, one official's plan to sell the project to Americans "as cleaning up God's oil spill" (he was joking, I think) just won't fly.
The ministerial parade now heading south to keep Ottawa's memory alive in Washington's notoriously short attention span should attempt to upgrade the oilsands as a cleanup effort in progress. Environment Minister Jim Prentice is scheduled to visit the U.S. capital next week to kick-start the official "dialogue" on climate change and carbon capture that was announced during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit last week.
A top priority should be to arm-twist Congressman Henry Waxman, the influential and very green chairman of the House energy committee. He helped author a potential ban on government agencies using oilsand-derived product. What's worrisome is how that move started under a George W. Bush administration in a time of tight, high-priced oil. A purchase ban imposed by a greener president amid abundant cheaper oil seems a far greater risk.
If there's a bright side, it's that Obama doesn't yet have an oilsands alternative, is saddled with carbon-footprint problems of his own from coal-burning generators, and sees the answer in developing carbon-capture technology already funded by the Alberta and federal governments.
The bad news is that Fort McMurray is rapidly acquiring a dark and defining image that could put its oil ahead of baby seal pelts as Canada's most-vilified global export.
New rules for carbon capture and storage in Alberta will on the province's already strong regulatory framework, says the head of a panel studying the issue.
Jim Carter, chairman of the Alberta Carbon Capture and Development Council, said Tuesday the group's final report will be sent to provincial energy minister in the next few days.
"What you are going to see are advancements on how we see carbon and what we can in fact do with it," Carter said after speaking to a conference in Calgary. "With the funding that's there from the government and proposals that are there from industry, we will be able to set o on a path that will enable us to get these projects place by 2015."
The council, a group of industry and government o -cials appointed last April, was asked to help design a blueprint for regulating and monitoring Alberta's first large-scale carbon capture projects.
But Carter, former president of oilsands giant Syncrude, said the council's recommendations won't necessarily call for a bevy of new regulations,
"A lot of that framework is already there, it just needs to be modified to reflect the nature of carbon capture and storage," said Carter.
"There's a lot of good work that's already happened there in the Department of Energy."
The council's interim report, released in November, outlined liability and ownership issues, and recommended rigorous geological research to identify potential storage sites as well as a monitoring and verification fund.
The final report will be released after being reviewed by Energy Minister Mel Knight, a spokesman said.
"a key part of Alberta moving forward with the carbon capture funding," said Jason Chance.
Last week, the province announced legislation committing the previously announced $2 billion to help fund carbon capture projects, seen as Alberta's key solution to its growing greenhouse gas emissions.
There are 20 companies vying for the funds, including coal-electricity producers Epcor and TransAlta, as as oilsands players Canadian Natural Resources, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Petro- Canada and StatoilHydro.
Full project proposals must be submitted by the end of March, from which three to five initiatives will be approved. Bids from coal-fired electricity producers, the and manufacturing plants will be evaluated by a government committee that includes departments such as energy, environment and finance.
The winning projects be able to handle all facets surrounding capturing, transporting and storing carbon dioxide emissions. The Alberta government expects the projects store five million tonnes of carbon annually by 2015.
Projected costs and a company's ability to raise its share of the bill will also be factors in choosing which developments go ahead.