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Downtown Calgary

The soothing sounds of a string orchestra and piano accompany images of a sunrise over snow-capped mountains followed by the stillness of a city’s downtown core as dawn breaks. Lights are then turned on in a suburban home before the scene transitions to a green field. Finally, a woman is shown sitting in a coffee shop sipping on a cup of java.

This is the soothing video opening of Suncor Energy’s new multimedia advertising campaign – “what Yes can do” – spreading a message that Canada’s largest energy company is improving its environmental performance, building wind farms and planting trees as it provides fuel for the economy.

It didn’t take long, however, for the campaign to draw criticism from some environmental and consumer activists. A recent spoof of Suncor’s ad campaign, launched by New York-based SumOfUs, shines a light on some of the company’s recent environmental incidents and violations. Notably, it also accuses the company of actively lobbying against new Alberta government rules that would restrict the company’s use of water in its oil sands operations. The rules were initially expected to come into force later this year, but have since been delayed until sometime in 2015. (View spoof video at whatyescando.org.)

Suncor and Syncrude, the two oldest companies operating in the oil sands, built some of their plants in the 1960s and 1970s before provincial rules were introduced to protect the Athabasca River and other bodies of water in Alberta from excessive withdrawals.

Both companies argue – publicly and behind closed doors in a committee of government, industry, environmental and aboriginal representatives – that the law shouldn’t apply to their older facilities in the same way as newer installations, as they are not equipped to have large water storage facilities on site to allow for recycling.

Arlene Strom, Suncor’s vice-president of sustainability and communications, said in an interview that the company has nothing to hide, noting, “We don’t shy away from difficult conversations.”

She said Suncor produces annual reports as well as blogs to inform people about incidents, sanctions and how it’s developing new technologies to reduce its environmental footprint.

On the water issue, Strom explained that Suncor needs to withdraw water from the Athabasca River to continue operating certain facilities. The company, she added, has proposed to reduce its consumption of water at those sites by about half, and has been working with the committee since 2007 to address the challenge – a conversation that continues.

Suncor says its resistance to building a new water storage and recycling facility isn’t just about the economic cost. Building such a structure, Strom said, would cause “significant” land disturbance.

Kevin Grandia, a Canadian spokesman for SumOfUs, said Suncor is sidestepping the reality of warnings from scientists about withdrawing water from the Athabasca River when it reaches dangerously low levels. Scientists from the federal Fisheries Department have previously recommended a “precautionary approach” that would include banning water withdrawals whenever the levels reach an established target.

Grandia said that companies as large as Suncor could afford to stop operations whenever the river’s ecosystem is threatened by these low levels.

“I hear these arguments from companies about this being the reality of their business, but what scientists tell us is that this is the reality of the environment,” he said. “Mother nature isn’t going to give a reprieve to the effects on the Athabasca River based on when Suncor built their plants.”

To extract bitumen, which is the heavy oil buried with sand beneath northern Alberta forests, oil sands companies need a lot of water. In 2013, Suncor estimated it used 2.01 cubic metres of water for every cubic metre of oil it produced, down from about 2.3 cubic metres in 2007.

According to Parks Canada, the Athabasca Glacier – the main source of water for many western North American communities as well as industry – “may almost disappear” within three generations due to climate change. The agency says strong scientific evidence links this to human activity.

In August, an Alberta government report on air and water quality in the Lower Athabasca Region in 2012 expressed concern over rising nitrogen, dissolved uranium and dissolve lithium levels in surface water, though such levels still fell within regulated limits.

Suncor said it’s prepared to change its operations, depending on scientific data emerging from a new federal and provincial monitoring program that is measuring oil sands impacts.

“If the levels in the Athabasca River actually decrease to where it’s actually causing harm, we will make those changes,” said Prit Kotecha, Suncor’s director of environmental excellence and climate strategy. 

Grandia said SumOfUs would welcome any commitment to transparency in Suncor’s reporting.

“Providing that information allows us to take what they say and what they’re doing and call them out when they aren’t doing the things they say they care about,” said Grandia. “And when they set up a series of principles and images in the media, it’s incumbent on citizen groups like SumOfUs to keep them accountable.”

In July, Suncor – as part of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – announced that it is part of an agreement with General Electric for a water treatment pilot project that will reduce water use at certain oil sands operations.

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