In Situ Oil Sands Alliance defends Alberta’s energy sector

Former energy minister Pat "Black" Nelson is the vice-chair of start-up advocacy group

October 01, 2009

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Pat Nelson was Alberta’s first woman energy minister and finance minister while she held a Calgary seat as a Conservative in the provincial legislature during 1989– 2004. Now she has stepped forward as an industry voice. This summer, she became vice-chair of the recently created In Situ Oil Sands Alliance, in addition to her role as chief executive officer of the philanthropic Calgary Health Trust.

Interview by Gordon Jaremko

Alberta Oil: Why go to bat for bitumen?
Pat Nelson:
I started out in the oil sands. It’s an absolute passion for me. Right out of university in the mid-1970s I went to work for the first plant, Great Canadian Oil Sands, as manager of financial control. I loved Fort McMurray. When I was the minister of energy, I went there at every opportunity. It’s just a dream. You can go up there and, with your bare hands, pick up the richest crude in the world. You pick up the sand, squeeze it, smell it and realize that’s the richest crude in the world. That’s the jewel of Alberta.

AO: What is IOSA, the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance, about?
PN:
We want to provide a perspective that has received very little attention until now and deserves much more. Mining is a mature industry. Upgrading is emerging. By comparison, in situ is new. But more than 80 per cent of the oil sands are in situ. They’re too deep for mining.

AO: What difference will that make?
PN:
About 85 per cent of future oil sands development will be by well bores, and that’s good news. It’s similar to the conventional industry. There is only 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the land disturbance of bitumen mines. In-situ developments share roads rather than fragment the environment with new ones. Currently, the most common production method is steam injection. But in situ uses non-potable water. It’s not fit for human consumption and 90 per cent of it is recycled. Technologies are being improved and new ones are being developed that use less steam or none at all. So far, there have been 2.6 million tonnes of reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions – that’s like taking 550,000 cars off the roads. Alberta has always been known as a leader in technology development.

AO: What does IOSA aim to do?
PN:
We want to plant a balanced perspective. Polls say 55 per cent of Canadians believe the oil sands are having a negative impact on the environment. We will view public dialogue as way of doing business. Effective communication means two-way and balanced communication. That’s what we are committed to.

AO: How big a factor is the IOSA group?
PN:
Our members are independent, entrepreneurial Alberta companies. To date, their capital spending is $2.5 billion. They have more than 500,000 hectares of oil sands leases that they paid over $300 million to buy from the province. Their winter drilling employs 1,500 Albertans. This group is just getting started. They expect to spend $7 billion over the next five years. Their 20 billion barrels of recoverable bitumen reserves are enough for production of one million barrels a day for over 30 years.

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