12 ridiculous factual problems in the latest oilsands smear by National Geographic

Screenshot of the header image for the National Geographic story published on April 11, 2019.

Update: National Geographic responded to this article following online feedback and a proactive email sent by a JWN reader.

Brian Clark Howard, senior editor, environment, said the first point on our list of errors/inaccuracies has been addressed, but the publication sees no issue with anything else in the article.

"We spent considerable time this weekend reviewing the JWN piece, going through each point. We did agree that our original lead could be misread so we revised that, adding an editor's note at the bottom. But we don't feel anything we reported is inaccurate."

We completely disagree.


This week National Geographic published its latest attack on the oilsands industry, written by Ontario-based “international environmental journalist” Stephen Leahy.

Headlined “This is the world's most destructive oil operation—and it's growing,” from its first sentence to its last, the article is bursting with factual errors and omissions that dramatically change the narrative to suit an uninformed and incorrect vision of the industry and its impacts.

Leaving out the photo selection, which is highly problematic in itself, here are 12 major errors and issues within the text.

1. “Imagine driving on a highway and to either side behind a thin screen of trees is a vast industrial landscape as far as the eye can see. Now imagine 500 miles of that highway.”

Let’s start with the second part. Leahy indicates that one can travel a highway in Alberta and be inside the oilsands region for 500 miles, bombarded by industrial destruction the entire way.

It’s actually 270 miles from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, and 336 miles from Edmonton to the most northerly oilsands project, Fort Hills. But that’s not even really important — along Highway 63, the road to the oilsands, one does not reach the Athabasca oilsands region until approximately the town of Grassland, which is about 160 miles from Fort McMurray, or 215 miles from Fort Hills.

One does not reach the mineable oilsands region until north of Fort McMurray. It is 57 miles from Fort McMurray to Fort Hills.

Poor form, National Geographic.

More important than the huge discrepancy in the miles, is that anyone who has done this drive knows it is boreal forest, all around, for easily 90 percent of the journey, all the way. And it’s not a “thin screen of trees” masking a “vast industrial landscape.”

South of Fort McMurray it’s a big boreal forest with a handful of signs marking the location of oilsands projects, and a couple plant stacks visible from the road. North of Fort McMurray, one does drive by Suncor’s Base Operations and then Syncrude, and Syncrude especially is a large presence on the landscape.

However, so is the Gateway Hill reclaimed area that Syncrude has returned to the Alberta government, and the large former East Mine area that Syncrude is well into the process of reclaiming.

Further north along Highway 63 the signs of industry are few, other than some stacks seen in the distance from the road.

Years ago, when I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Harvest Operations Corp.’s BlackGold SAGD project, a businessman from South Korea asked me, “Do you visit the forest often?” I think he said that because of how huge this area is when you actually see it, which I question Leahy did.

2. “Canada’s national carbon tax to cut its global warming emissions went into effect April 1, 2019. And yet the country spent U.S. $3.4 billion (C $4.5 billion) last year to buy the only oil pipeline from Canada’s west coast to the Alberta oilsands to ensure future growth of its oil exports, and allow expansion of operations in the oilsands.”

This one’s not so much an error as a major omission that makes it appear as if Alberta, and the oilsands industry, have not acted to decrease the sector's carbon footprint.

In 2007, Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to introduce a carbon tax on large industrial emitters. The levy was $15/tonne until Jan. 1, 2017, when it was increased to $20/tonne and was applied economy-wide, and subsequently increased again to $30/tonne on Jan. 1, 2018.

In December 2016, the Alberta government under Premier Rachel Notley also enacted the Oilsands Emissions Limit Act, which caps the industry’s carbon emissions at 100 megatonnes per year, although the legislation to guide its implementation is not yet written.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that Alberta’s climate actions are a central reason why Ottawa agreed to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline and its expansion. The rules are also a key driver of producers working to decrease emissions, industry leaders earlier this week told the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.

Consider the following statement that Canadian Natural Resources Limited executive vice-chairman Steve Laut gave the committee:

“Canada’s oil and gas sector has taken what was branded as high-intensity oil in 2009 and made it the premium oil on the global stage, and we’ve done it all in 10 years, and we’re committed to doing better in the future,” he said.

“By reducing emissions at our Horizon oilsands mining and upgrading operations, reducing methane vent volumes at our primary heavy oil operations and capturing and sequestering CO2 at our Quest facility, Canadian Natural has taken the equivalent of two million cars off the road. That represents five per cent of the entire vehicles in Canada. The entire industry has achieved similar, equally impressive results, and we’re groomed to do even more. It’s not 2009 anymore. Canadian oil and gas is now, from a climate change perspective, as well as other environmental, social and governance metrics, the premium product, something all Canadians should be very proud of.

“Our performance is important because global energy demand continues to grow and crude oil and natural gas will remain an important part of the global energy mix for the foreseeable future.

3. “…Canada is not likely to meet its 2020 carbon emission reduction target, experts warn. Nor is it likely to meet its 2030 Paris climate target—almost entirely due to increasing emissions from the oil and gas sector, which are expected to reach 100 million tonnes a year by then. That’s close to the entire country of Nigeria’s emissions in 2017—a major oil-producing country with a far larger population of 190 million people.”

Nigeria? Really? That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison by any measure. First of all, Nigeria produces less than half the oil that Canada does, at 2.059 million bbls/d in 2018 compared to Canada’s 4.578 million bbls/d, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the National Energy Board.

Also, obviously, Nigeria is a war-torn developing nation that is ranked 157 on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index. Canada is ranked 12.

It feels like the National Geographic reporter had his projection of emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector and a list of emissions data by country, and then just found the country figure that was closest to his Canada number. Not another thought was paid.

4. “Canada has been a significant oil producer since the 1850s. Oil is the country’s biggest export earner, and it is a much bigger part of the Canadian economy than it is in the more diversified U.S.”

Okay, sure. But the article conveniently leaves out mention of the oil and gas revolution in the United States in recent years. U.S. oil production skyrocketed from 5.5 million bbls/d in 2010 to 9.4 million bbls/d in 2017, while during the same period, Canada’s oil production grew from 2.7 million bbls/d to 4.2 million bbls/d.

5. “The 175-odd oilsands mining projects are owned by major oil companies from around the world, including Exxon and China’s CNOOC.”

This one is by far my favourite. Numbers aside, I honestly feel like at this point anyone, anywhere who doesn’t understand the difference between mining and in situ should not be permitted to write content about the oilsands industry until they get it.

As a quick synopsis, approximately 90 percent of the massive oilsands resource is located too deep below ground for commercial surface mining, so it has to be produced in situ, or by drilling, which does not create any tailings ponds.

Now let’s get to that 175 number, which is flat-out wrong.

There are currently six operating oilsands mining projects, and 10 total mines operating within these projects. There are also 26 operating in situ, or drilled thermal projects (including 8 that produce less than 10,000 bbls/d), but it’s clear that National Geographic has no idea what those are.

6. “Together, the companies pump out 2.6 million barrels every day, virtually all of which is shipped to U.S. refineries.”

Absolutely on the U.S. refineries. But, one, 2.6 million bbls/d is a bit low. Together, mined and thermal oilsands projects produced an average of 2.8 million barrels of bitumen per day in 2018, according to the AER. And, two, (more important given that this part of the mining-focused National Geographic article comes immediately after the last point on our list), 1.35 million bbls/d of that came from drilled projects while 1.47 million bbls/d came from mining.

7. “For every barrel shipped out, six to 12 barrels of tailings waste is produced.” (A quote from Paul Belanger, who is described as a former oilsands worker and current co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca)

If this was true, just considering mining operations alone (which as we’ve noted National Geographic did not), it would mean that up to 2.8 billion litres of tailings waste is created every day. That would mean that in one year, up to 1.022 trillion litres of tailings waste would accumulate. Seems a bit off, since it is accepted that a total 1.3 trillion litres of tailings volume has accumulated since the start of commercial oilsands mining operations in 1967.

Tailings are a key issue that has to be dealt with, but let’s not blow the challenge exponentially out of proportion.

8. “Tailings ponds have been growing for more than 50 years with no end in sight and no solution to clean them up…Tar sands operators could reduce their pollution and better manage the tailings waste problems, but they’re reluctant to spend the money.”

Improving tailings management is a slow process, but important strides are being made. It is important to note that many tailings ponds are part of the process of everyday oilsands mining operations, acting as holding basins from which process can be recycled.

In 2010, using its TRO technology, Suncor Energy became the first oilsands mining operator to successfully reclaim a tailings pond to a solid surface. Here’s what the area, now known as Wapisiw Lookout, looked like in 2017.

Tailings is one of the four environmental priority areas of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a globally unprecedented collaborative technology network. This means that the work companies are doing to reduce their tailings footprint — including developing new technologies like Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s in-pit extraction process, which would produce dry, stackable tailings — can be shared between all operators.

For example, in 2015 Syncrude spent $1.9 billion to build a commercial-scale tailings centrifuge, which accelerates the reclamation process, creating a clay soil material that can be used in post-mining reclamation. Syncrude contributed this technology to COSIA, and in 2012 the technology was adopted by Shell at the Athabasca Oil Sands Project, which is now owned by Canadian Natural.

9. “Indigenous communities in the region are deeply impoverished.”

It is important to note the benefits that Indigenous communities have from oilsands development, increasingly as project partners.

In 2015 and 2016, 399 Indigenous companies representing 65 communities across Alberta had direct business with oilsands producers valued at $3.33 billion, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

This is an increase from 2013-2014 in terms of number of companies (up 72), communities represented (up 11), and percent of total oilsands procurement (4.1 percent in 2015-2016 compared to 3.1 percent in 2013-2014).

In November 2017, the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Fort McKay First Nation completed the largest business investment ever in Canada by Indigenous peoples when they bought a 49 percent interest in Suncor's East Tank Farm for $503 million.

10. “It makes no difference if local communities object to proposed oilsands projects…The best they can hope for is to have some land set aside to buffer the impacts and get some compensation.”

There has definitely been “some land set aside” in Alberta. In May 2018, the province established the world’s largest contiguous area of protected boreal forest.

With support from Syncrude, the Tallcree First Nation, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the federal government, Alberta created five new and expanded wildland provincial parks that were identified in the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan in 2012.

The lands connect with Wood Buffalo National Park and other existing wildland parks to create a total of 67,000 square kilometres of protected area, more than twice the size of Vancouver Island.

The protected area grew by 1,600 square kilometres in March 2019 when Cenovus, Imperial Oil and Teck voluntarily relinquished additional leases south of Wood Buffalo National Park to create a new provincial wildland park.

“Initially proposed by Mikisew Cree First Nation, the wildland will safeguard their way of life while addressing concerns raised in a 2016 UNESCO report on Wood Buffalo National Park,” the province said.

11. “If built, the [Trans Mountain pipeline expansion] could dramatically increase the number of large oil tankers using coastal waters.”

The Trans Mountain project has been loading marine vessels from its Westridge Terminal at Burnaby, B.C. since 1956 without a single spill from tanker operations.

The expansion would increase tanker traffic through the Vancouver Harbour and Salish Sea by approximately 34 tankers per month, or about two per day.

According to the West Coast Spill Response study commissioned by the BC Ministry of Environment, in 2012, 586 oil tankers of greater than 50,000 dry weight tonnes out of a total of 11,137 vessel transits crossed the passage line at Neah Bay at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In Port Metro Vancouver, this was 116 tankers of greater than 50,000 dry weight tonnes out of a total of 10,590 vessel transits.

In addition to government marine protections, the Trans Mountain Expansion project committed $150 million to add 43 new spill response vessels to its fleet, British Columbia’s largest-ever expansion of spill response personnel and equipment.

12. "If the Trans Mountain pipeline does go forward, it will take years to complete. By then, it’s possible it won’t be needed since the decline in global oil demand is not far off.” (Quoting Kevin Taft, former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party).

Thirteen oil producers have signed 15- and 20-year commitments of 707,500 bbls/d on the Trans Mountain Expansion, or about 80 percent of its capacity. Under NEB requirements, the remaining 20 percent is left open for spot volumes.

According to the International Energy Agency, oil demand continues to grow around the world, driven primarily by China, India, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

By 2040, oil is expected to still be the largest single source of energy in the world, meeting 28 per cent of demand, with oil consumption increasing by 12 percent over the period.

As ARC Financial senior director Jackie Forrest noted in May 2018, “The global trend is towards using more oil. A lot more. Since the TMX project was announced six years ago by Kinder Morgan Inc., world oil demand has grown more than 12 times the amount of TMX’s capacity expansion of 590,000 barrels per day.”