Environmentalist attacks escalate over Alberta oil sands

Calls for tourists to boycott province adds pressures to government, tourism industry

The pair looked normal enough as they approached the ticket counter. It was 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 3, and although the observation deck wouldn’t be open for another half hour, the cashier assumed the two men – Ian Scott Wearmouth, 21, and Frederic Bleau, 30 – were purchasing their Calgary Tower passes in advance.

Little did the cashier or security team know that, rather than wait for the doors to officially open, Wearmouth and Bleau would immediately spring into action. Opening an emergency exit, the pair ushered the rest of their fellow Greenpeace activists into the base of the tower.

Carrying climbing equipment, a stepladder, and a large rolled-up banner, the group strode into a nearby elevator undetected, and traveled up to the observation deck. Using the ladder to reach the latch, they opened a window and were able to climb onto an outside catwalk.

Wasting no time, three of the activists, including Tom Verheaghe of Belgium, rappelled down the side of the iconic red, white and black pod atop the tower while four more acted as spotters on the catwalk.

The trio of activists on the ropes had the massive banner with them, which they quickly unfurled and pinned to the side of the tower. Pedestrians and workers in the buildings nearby could see its message loud and clear:

“SEPARATE OIL AND STATE.”

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The stunt may not have caused such a storm in the media throughout the following week if it weren’t for the event’s timing: less than two weeks earlier, Corporate Ethics International had unveiled the Rethink Alberta campaign in the United States, which asks people to boycott the province until it addresses the environmental concerns caused by the Athabasca oil sands.

The campaign – consisting of a YouTube video and billboards set up in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland and Denver, as well as banner ads on tourism websites such as Priceline.com, postcards sent to U.S. travel agencies, and Google ads set to pop up when keywords such as “Banff” or “Alberta” are searched – was already a worrisome issue for the Alberta government, and that’s even before its expansion to London, England in the middle of last month.

The past couple of months have seen another ramping up of anti-oil sands and anti-Alberta sentiment from environmentalists, a regular occurrence that the government and energy sector have come up against numerous times. But the Rethink Alberta campaign and its methods have another sector of the province in its sights: the tourism industry.

While Michael Marx, executive director of the San Francisco-based Corporate Ethics International, says he’s not looking to harm Alberta’s tourism business, he feels the pledge visitors to the campaign’s website are asked to sign should send a clear message to the government.

“The government hasn’t addressed the environmental concerns of the oil sands, despite countless calls to do so,” says Marx.

“All they’ve done is step up their public relations strategy, which is the wrong tactic. We want the government to turn words into action, and until they do, people are going to realize that perhaps they shouldn’t support a province and a government that turns a blind eye towards all this devastation.”

The Alberta government has rejected outright the claims made by Marx and Corporate Ethics International with its own campaign, Tell It Like It Is, which has included full-page ads in the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun promoting the environmental efforts being taken by Alberta Environment and Alberta Energy over curbing the oil sands’ greenhouse gas emissions.

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Fears that the Rethink Alberta campaign would convince people to cancel their trips to the province were further stoked by an Angus Reid poll conducted between July 22 and Aug. 1, and released on Aug. 9.

The survey was conducted online amongst a randomly selected group that included 1,012 Canadian, 1,013 American, and 1,956 British adults, who were shown the video produced by Corporate Ethics International for the Rethink Alberta campaign that depicts shots of the oil sands, oil-drenched ducks and other birds, and statements about the devastation the oil sands is unleashing upon the surrounding area.

The poll suggests that before watching the ad, 54 per cent of Britons and 49 per cent of Americans would “definitely” or “probably” consider visiting Alberta.

After watching the ad, however, that number dropped to 24 per cent for Britons and 26 per cent for Americans, and the percentage of Britons who said they would “definitely not” visit Alberta jumped from 12 to 31 per cent, while the percentage of Americans who responded the same jumped from 15 to 34 per cent.

While the poll paints a grim picture for Alberta tourism, industry insiders aren’t taking it seriously, and question the methodology of Angus Reid’s report.

“There’s a big difference between people who would consider travelling somewhere, and people who actually take the trip,” says Bruce Okabe, chief executive officer for Travel Alberta.

“You can consider travelling somewhere your entire life. That doesn’t mean you’re actually planning a trip, or even travel at all. The way the question was worded and the way those surveyed were approached doesn’t accurately reflect a cross-section of people who are actually planning to travel to Alberta.

“I’d be overjoyed if 54 per cent of people in England knew about Alberta and were planning trips here,” Okabe continued, “but the fact is that our most recent survey numbers show that rate is less than 17 per cent. So this study isn’t at all accurate, and I’m frankly disappointed that such a distinguished firm as Angus Reid took such a lazy and opportunistic approach to this poll.”

According to Okabe and statistics provided by Travel Alberta, the Rethink Alberta campaign is in fact having much less severe of an impact than what it hopes and what the media is perpetuating.

Since its arrival on YouTube in July, the campaign video has garnered roughly 85,000 views. Compared to a truly viral video such as Lady Gaga’s music video for her song “Telephone,” which has been viewed over 75 million times, Okabe calls the video “a ripple in the water.”

In terms of viewers’ comments about the video, Travel Alberta’s surveillance of social media sites since the campaign’s launch has found that out of 1,358 mentions of Rethink Alberta on Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs, 69 per cent of the comments are neutral on the issue of the oil sands and boycotting the province.

Comments that show agreement with Rethink Alberta accounts for only 16 per cent of total comments, while 14 per cent do not agree with the campaign’s message.

Additionally, since 11 billboards were erected in London last month, U.K. citizens have made only 26 comments about Rethink Alberta, and an overwhelming majority of those comments are neutral.

“People don’t make vacation plans based on political motivations or ideals,” says Okabe. “They take a vacation to get away from those kinds of thoughts. We have enough beautiful and pristine wilderness and vibrant urban destinations here to take people’s minds off the oil sands immediately.

“The biggest mistake that the people behind this campaign have made is that they launched it in July and August. That’s when people go on vacation; their trip has been planned since April or May. It’s too late; they’ve made their decision.

“This is such a non-issue, and it’s going to go away very quickly.”

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Still, environmentalists are not backing down from their stance. In their mind, they shouldn’t have to. They believe the facts about the oil sands speak for themselves, and that the provincial government has done nothing from what they can see to stop the tar sands’ devastation on the surrounding wilderness.

The reason the government won’t do anything to combat the oil sands, says Greenpeace Alberta’s Mike Hudema, is because the relationship between the government and the oil industry is too close for comfort, at least for him.

“We intended to send a message [on Aug. 3 in Calgary],” says Hudema, who works for Greenpeace as a climate and energy campaigner in Edmonton, and supported the Calgary Tower incident but wasn’t involved directly.

“Government should not be allowing the oil industry to dictate energy policy, and it should not be a public relations firm for the industry. That’s basically what the government is right now: a mouthpiece for the oil giants to hide behind, and we’re sick of it. Oil and gas companies should be held just as accountable as any other industry in this province.”

While Hudema isn’t willing to fully agree with Rethink Alberta’s strategy of demanding a boycott, he does hope that the message is heard, and should be broadcast by any means necessary.

“It’s never nice to hear international criticism, but that campaign is doing the right thing by letting people know what’s at stake,” says Hudema. “That’s our goal too: inform the public, because unless people know the truth about the oil sands and the devastation occurring to the north, we will never be able to make change happen.”

The facts presented by Rethink Alberta have been the cause of some debate, most notably the suggestion that the Alberta oil sands covers an area of land that’s equal to the size of England.

The website quickly changed the statistic on its website, admitting that only a portion of the previously stated 140,200 square kilometers – 602 square kilometers, according to Alberta Energy – have been disturbed. However, it still states that the rest of that area is susceptible to expansion and contamination.

Jay O’Neill, a spokesperson for Alberta Energy, has found issue with nearly every statistic reported by Rethink Alberta, except for the fact that the Alberta tar sands are the third largest crude oil reserve in the world with a proven 170.4 billion barrels at stake in 2010, next to Saudi Arabia’s 260.1 billion barrels and Venezuela’s 211.2 billion barrels in the same year.*

In a report sent to The Calgary Journal, O’Neill argues that critics of the oil sands don’t realize that, under Canadian law, all disturbed lands will be reclaimed, and takes particular issue with Rethink Alberta’s claims that “millions” of migratory birds and wildlife will be threatened by the oil sands.

“This is exaggerated, alarmist and misrepresents the effect upon bird populations,” says O’Neill in the report.

“Based on the amount of disturbed land expected within the oil sands region, the effect would be much less than one one-thousandth of the bird population of the Canadian boreal forest.”

O’Neill also argues that, contrary to what Rethink Alberta reports, the tar sands are not Canada’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, pointing to Environment Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory – dated 2008, the most recent data – which suggests Canada’s road vehicles produce more than three and a half times the greenhouse gases of the oil sands.

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Whatever the truth may be, Marx of Corporate Ethics International argues that nothing is physically being done to prevent further devastation, saying that no matter what the statistics are, there’s no doubting that some environmental disturbance has, is and will take place thanks to the oil sands.

“We are aware of the laws of Canada, and that all disturbed lands must be reclaimed,” says Marx. “The question we’re asking is when, and in what capacity. Just answer us that: when will you, the government, finally say, ‘Enough,’ and start going about restoring the environment?”

Adds Hudema of Greenpeace: “Alberta can release more ads and videos and statements all they want, and they’ve done a great job of getting their message out there. The government doesn’t have a public relations problem. What it has is an environment problem. What it has is a health problem. What it has is a human rights problem. Those have to be addressed first, before their image. And really, what will make their image look better? Talking or doing?”

As of late last month, the province seems to have gotten the message. The Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development is calling for 20 to 32 per cent of the oil sands region to be set aside for conservation, and is asking Albertans to visit landuse.alberta.ca to submit their comments.

Perhaps the war between government, the oil industry, and the environmentalists will always be around, but the reported fourth victim of this battle, tourism, seems to be doing just fine, regardless of what goes on up north.

“I was reading in Fort McMurray Today, and the head of Fort McMurray Tourism was saying that over the past month, the visitors groups touring the oil sands have doubled, and he’s even had to go to Suncor and ask that the space requirements be changed, because he had no room,” says Okabe of Travel Alberta.

“Just goes to show you, any publicity is good publicity.”

Originally published September 2010

* These statistics were updated upon uploading to this site on May 26, 2012, to reflect current data as published on Alberta Energy’s website. In the original published version of this story, it was reported Alberta’s crude oil reserves were second to Saudi Arabia’s, whose reserves as of 2010 were estimated to be 264.2 billion barrels at the time of publication, and Venezuela was never mentioned.