Chris Pecora

Letter to the War Room

Snitching on the misinformed.

By Graham Thomson


I realize you’ve called yourself the “Canadian Energy Centre” since opening shop last fall, but we all know you’re the War Room as promised in the United Conservative Party’s platform during the 2019 provincial election campaign. And you have declared war on what Premier Jason Kenney has called the “campaign of lies, of defamation and disinformation based on torqued, dated, incomplete and out of context attacks on our energy sector.”

It’s your job—thanks to a $30-million budget from the citizens of Alberta—to tell the “truth” about our oil industry.

On that note, I feel like a bit of a snitch, but as a concerned Albertan I feel it’s my duty to pass along some disturbing information. Someone is spreading misinformation about Alberta’s oil sands industry. This is also a bit awkward for me to point out… but it’s Kenney himself.

For months our premier has been providing wrong or misleading information about the level of greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands. Specifically, he has said the emissions intensity of the average oil sands barrel is below the global average. Not only that, he says “we’ve reduced by 30 per cent the intensity of a barrel of bitumen since the year 2000 and are on track to do it by another 20 per cent.” Kenney is making the oil sands seem cleaner than they are.

First off, even as the intensity of emissions drop per barrel, the overall number of barrels is increasing—so, emissions continue to grow. And even a reduced intensity is still pretty intense. The average for the oil sands is about 30 per cent above the “global production-weighted average barrel,” according to a peer-reviewed paper published in Science in 2018.

Canada’s average oil production emissions were the fourth most intensive in the world, better only than Algeria, Venezuela and Cameroon—but worse than the global average rates of other big producers such as the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The problem is it takes a lot of energy—and emissions—to separate the oily sludge from the sand. Even the Alberta government once upon a time referred to the oil sands as the “tar sands.” Bitumen in its raw form is more practical for patching up a leaky canoe than for fueling an SUV.

I realize this whole argument over emission comparisons can quickly turn into a mug’s game, with people cherry-picking statistics to show their oil-extraction process to be cleaner than the other guy’s. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) likes to say the oil sands is “cleaner than you think”—which, come to think of it, doesn’t sound as reassuring as I think it’s supposed to sound.

Some of the newer oil sands production facilities—such as Suncor’s Fort Hills mine—have emissions intensity below the weighted average of all fuels. But that would be picking a particularly clean cherry from a relatively oily cherry tree.

You might want to contact CAPP to have Tim McMillan clarify his statement. I mean, you are all about the truth and facts, right?

Last October, Maclean’s reporter Jason Markusoff wrote an exhaustive article entitled “Scrubbing the oil sands’ record” in which he quoted CAPP president Tim McMillan claiming, just like Kenney, that when it comes to emissions, “we’re on par with the average barrel.” When Markusoff later pressed for evidence to back up that claim, a CAPP spokeswoman said McMillan had “misspoke.”

So, dear War Room, while you’re correcting Kenney for making a misleading comment, you might want to contact CAPP to have McMillan clarify his statement. I mean, you are all about the truth and facts, right?

I know you like to contact people. When the Medicine Hat News published an opinion piece in December calling the war room “an expensive joke” you immediately wrote to the newspaper offering a rebuttal to counter “the comments and inaccuracies” in the opinion piece. And you wanted the rebuttal to run as an op-ed in the paper “as quickly as possible.”

This looked like a heavy-handed move on your part but, then again, you’re the War Room, not the peace room, right?

Of course, this has echoes of the infamous Accurate News and Information Act of 1937, when the Alberta government of William Aberhart introduced a law to force newspapers to publish “corrections” to stories the Social Credit government of the day didn’t like. The legislation was later deemed to be unconstitutional and the Edmonton Journal was given a special Pulitzer prize for fighting against Aberhart’s bullying tactics.

But you, as the War Room, would know all that. You’re all about truth and facts.

I do hope you won’t be too hard on Kenney for spreading misinformation about the oil sands. Perhaps he was relying on information that was “torqued, dated, incomplete and out of context.”

I have no doubt you will want to respond to my column. I look forward to hearing from you.


Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.




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