Campaign aims to counter oil sands criticism

WASHINGTON – Manufacturers, refiners, energy companies and pipeline operators that think the promise of Canadian crude is getting lost in the criticism of it have formed an initiative to promote the fossil fuel.

“If you don’t stand up for yourself or aren’t seen as sticking up for yourself, why should (others) stick up for you?” asked Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which is participating in the campaign.

It comes amid scrutiny of the techniques energy companies use to harvest bitumen from Canada’s oil sands and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver the crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. The opposition to oil sands development surprised some advocates, just as industry leaders were caught off guard by the recent public backlash against the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract natural gas.

Environmentalists have battled Keystone XL by focusing on concerns about its initial route through the drinking water supplies of the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. Many say, however, that a larger worry is that more pipelines would expand the marketplace for oil sands crude, which generates more greenhouse gas emissions than other oil.

The life-cycle emissions of oil sands crude – from the wellhead through combustion – are 5 percent to 15 percent higher than for the average barrel of imported crude, according to an IHS CERA analysis.

The new initiative, known as Oil Sands Fact Check, is battling back, with reports touting the benefits of the product and countering opponents’ claims.

Lobbying by API

The campaign is the brainchild of the American Petroleum Institute, which already had been aggressively lobbying the Obama administration to permit the Keystone XL pipeline. But API has a big portfolio, writing industry standards and responding to regulatory proposals. It spent $8.6 million lobbying Congress and policymakers last year alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis of required disclosure forms.

Oil Sands Fact Check, by contrast, is more focused on providing information, research and experts on the oil sands, said Cindy Schild, API’s senior manager for downstream operations.

API is funding the month-old initiative, but members include a wide variety of trade and business groups, ranging from the Michigan Manufacturers Association and the Chemistry Council of Missouri to assorted chambers of commerce and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.

The campaign is reminiscent of other specialized fossil fuel lobbying groups, such as America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a group formed by Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, and other producers eager to encourage new demand for gas.

Similarly, three years ago, the Independent Petroleum Association of America created “Energy In Depth,” a public outreach campaign that focuses on countering critics’ claims about oil and gas production from shale rock formations and other tight reservoirs nationwide. IPAA launched Energy In Depth amid spiking environmental concerns about the hydraulic fracturing process used to harvest oil and gas from those tight plays.

Oil Sands Fact Check is borrowing a page from Energy In Depth’s playbook, with regular “issue alerts” to reporters and others, and plans for touting the message via Facebook, Twitter and other social media. To lure in critics as well as supporters, the group has ads that appear on Google when users search for “tar sands” – a synonym often used derisively – and other related terms.

“What we’re trying to do is really just get the facts out on the benefits of oil sands, how energy is derived from oil sands and to continue to describe the opportunity, and, really, the energy security benefits and job benefits,” Schild said.

A major concern for the group is countering claims that oil sands crude is dirtier than other crudes.

“When you look at life-cycle – well-to-wheels – it is comparable to other crudes that are refined in the U.S., including crudes from California, Mexico and Venezuela,” Schild said.

Emissions question

Critics say that overlooks emissions during the energy-intense harvesting of the hydrocarbon bitumen from Canada’s oil sands.

The U.S. should “reject expansion of tar sands and the extraction of other sources of dirtier, more destructive and more expensive forms of oil,” said Danielle Droitsch, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project.

As hard as a hockey puck at 50 degrees, bitumen can be refined into synthetic crude or other products once it is pulled from the ground. But to glean bitumen from Canada’s oil sands, energy companies first must separate it from the sand, water and clay extracted by open-pit mining and less invasive techniques that use heat to draw the hydrocarbon directly from underground reservoirs.

Canada’s oil sands bounty makes the country second only to Saudi Arabia in its reserve base.

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com twitter.com/jendlouhyhc