TORONTO — Canadians are being misled about the oilsands by critics and celebrities making “sensational” and “unfounded” allegations, the chief executives of two of Canada’s biggest energy companies said Wednesday.
“Like a character in a Hollywood movie, oil has been cast as a villain,” Cenovus Energy president and chief executive Brian Ferguson said during a panel discussion at the Canadian Club of Toronto.
“In Hollywood, the land of make-believe, everything is black and white, good and evil. It makes for a very compelling story, but the real world does not work that way.”
While he didn’t address recent comments by Canadian rock icon Neil Young directly, Ferguson did refer to other celebrities who “have been trash-talking oil,” adding that “when it comes to energy, Hollywood stereotypes are unhelpful and, in many instances, simply dead wrong.”
“These accusations are absolutely baseless, yet they make front-page headlines,” said Ferguson. “Canadians should be outraged by these accusations.”
Young held a pre-concert news conference in Toronto on the weekend in which he attacked the Harper government and Alberta’s oilsands, comparing a Fort McMurray industrial site he’d visited to the atomic-bomb devastation of Hiroshima, Japan.
Young said he was “embarrassed” by a Canadian government that was “trading integrity for money” and accused politicians of breaking treaties with the First Nation and plundering natural resources.
He reaffirmed his criticism Monday after a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper shot back that Canada’s natural resources sector was a fundamental part of the economy.
Both Ferguson and TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said the oilsands were being developed responsibly, with First Nations not only benefiting from revenue sharing but also from training and jobs.
Girling — whose company is still awaiting U.S. government approval to build the US$5.4-billion northern portion of its Keystone XL pipeline years after first applying for a permit — said projects are being put at risk by delays by allegations based in “fantasy and not reality,” which are putting Canada at risk of being left behind in a competitive global market.
“We’ve been through a more than five-year process with Keystone XL and it’s been riddled with misinformation and that misinformation has resulted in a delay that I think has been detrimental to both the environment, the economy and the public interest,” Girling said after the event.
“This is about getting the facts out before our world gets turned on us by those that are out ahead of us, creating that misinformation.”
He said TransCanada was committed to Keystone, but had had discussions with its customers about putting in rail terminals if the pipeline isn’t built.
Canada’s foreign minister John Baird was in Washington on Wednesday, pushing for a prompt decision on Keystone Wednesday. He said that the Obama administration shouldn’t drag out the approval process any longer.
Several politicians also criticized Young’s comments Wednesday, saying they were insensitive and misleading.
“His comparison of Fort McMurray to Hiroshima is as inaccurate as it is insulting to victims and I think really undercuts his credibility,” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who is in India for a trade mission, said in a conference call from Mumbai.
“I just think it’s regrettable that he’s using his fame to advance policies that actually will hurt the very people he claims he wants to help.”
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall called the comparison ignorant of the facts, and, in Ottawa, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said he disagreed with the rock star’s comments, but noted Young was entitled to his opinions.
“He can keep on rocking in a free world,” MacKay said.
Young and actor-director Robert Redford lead a list of celebrities, such as Daryl Hannah, critical of Keystone and the oilsands. In 2010, Hollywood producer-director James Cameron criticized the oilsands as a “black eye” and a “dead-end paradigm.”
Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign co-ordinator, said that when it came to the oilsands debate, the real disagreement wasn’t over what the facts were, but rather which facts mattered.
“On the one hand we have the data emphasizing the short-term economic gains from tar sands expansion,” he said.
“On the other hand we the huge costs to our climate, water and First Nations communities from pollution, as well as the economic risk Canada is taking by putting all our eggs in the tar sands basket and missing out on the green jobs revolution.
I think most Canadians, faced with a choice about what is best for their kids, would rather we invest in the green energy projects that create jobs and make Canada a leader in fighting climate change.“