Canadian Oil Sands and America: Part 3

In the first two parts of this series (parts one and two) we looked at the technology being used in energy exploration in Canada’s oil sands, as well as the impact it has on workers and the local economy. But there are other players on the field as well. Today we’ll close out the series by seeing how relations have been with other groups, concerns about worker safety, and perhaps most importantly, how this can impact United States energy policy and our economy.

Dealing With the Locals

From the beginning, the oil industry had to find a way to work with the needs and desires of western Canada’s aboriginal groups, the First Nations in Alberta. The relationship was not always smooth, with the indigenous natives expressing concerns over the preservation of the land and their own financial and social interests. And to this day, some tensions remain from time to time.

But the industry has managed to turn that situation around into a net positive in a number of ways. Rather than treating them as the enemy, companies like Suncor have brought the people of the First Nations into the process, having their leaders participate in planning boards and getting them involved in the sweeping land reclamation projects which are returning the arboreal forests back to very near their original state when operations are complete. One member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Ivy Cree, has participated in these projects first hand and even planted the three millionth tree on reclaimed land herself.

They’ve also engaged in substantial outreach to the First Nations community, working to ensure that their local businesses benefit from the expanded commercial activity. Other related programs have kept tribal leaders in the loop and actively involved with the process from beginning to end.

Safety First and Pretty Much Always

One thing I noticed while touring these facilities was an intense, bordering on obsessive focus on safety. In fact, going over my notes from the trip, I had jotted down at one point that the company representatives “seemed almost paranoid” about the subject. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is mandatory for pretty much every living thing setting foot on any of their property, safety drills are a daily feature of life and warnings about safety protocol litter the production sites like graffiti on inner city subway tunnels.

The reasons are obvious and well founded, of course. Keeping your workers alive and well in such challenging industrial environments is simply not optional… it’s mandatory. Further, opponents of development seem to be quick to jump on any safety related incident as part of their efforts to hinder production. In fact, a worker at one site was killed in an accident two days before we arrived and it was the subject of much discussion around town.

But after returning home and researching the records, what I found truly amazing was actually how few people have been killed or seriously injured over the years. This is no doubt due to the stringent safety procedures in place. But the fact remains that whenever man engages in such massive industrial activity on a scale like this, accidents are going to happen eventually. There is no set of procedures and protocols which can completely account for every human foible, momentary lack of attention or error. The alternative, as one pipe-fitter put it to me over dinner, is to, “shut off the lights and go back to living in caves.” It’s simply not an option.

How Does This Relate to the Good Old U.S.A?

This is one question which has already come up in response to this series. We don’t really have oil sands reserves in America, so what does this have to do with us? Well… quite a bit, actually.

First of all, the work being done in Alberta is a clear and encouraging sign that technical innovation is far from dead. Companies are working together in oddly cooperative fashions to develop new science which has brought a resource once thought out of our reach into useful production. We’re dealing with similar challenges in America as we continue to explore the potential of difficult to reach resources such as deep formations of natural gas and shale oil. Formations which we may not be able to profitably explore today may become commonplace in the future as long as we have the will and the drive to find new ways to safely tap into them.

Second, many of the challenges which these companies have faced in establishing remote “boom towns” in Canada may crop up in similar territory at home in the future. We can learn from the solutions they have found and shorten the development curve moving forward.

And finally, there is already a direct impact on U.S. employment from these projects. As previously mentioned, the energy companies involved in oil sands exploration are buying equipment from us, importing workers, and shipping product to refineries on American soil. Further, while Canada is already our number one supplier of crude oil, the more they produce, the less we have to rely on less friendly, foreign sources.

There is also the question of international cooperation between America and our neighbor to the north. Additional pipeline work will be required, among other infrastructure components, to maximize delivery and refinement potential. All of that can add up to more jobs at home and enhanced energy security.

We could learn a lot from the grand scale experiment currently underway in Alberta. And if we are to be serious about our nation’s energy policy and future security, we’d be better off learning it sooner rather than later.

DISCLOSURE: Costs for travel and accommodations for this tour were provided by the American Petroleum Institute. No other financial remuneration was offered or accepted. The author was under no obligation to publish any content relating to the tour and neither API nor any of the companies mentioned in this series had any editorial control or input regarding published material beyond fact checking for accuracy.