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Seeing is Believing: Dispelling Myths About The Oil Sands

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It’s often said a picture is worth 1,000 words. So when it comes to showcasing oil sands development with its advances in technologies, efficiencies and reclamation successes, we believe a visit is worth 1,000 pictures.

Many folks aren’t aware that on numerous occasions in a year, the gates of oil sands operations are opened to greet a multitude of visitors from near and far.

In 2013 alone, more than 500 tours occurred in the Athabasca oil sands area. These tours can range from a handful of people to 50 or more visitors from all walks of life. They can be Canadian elected officials and Senators, U.S. office holders, North American and European policy and law makers; renowned university professors; students, TV and movie personalities, and media from around the corner and across the globe.

While these excursions work to inform and educate visitors about the oil sands, they also serve to highlight another success story when it comes to collaboration for a shared outcome. The Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA), the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the Government of Alberta and Fort McMurray Tourism come together, working with industry partners to offer these tours.

The OSCA has been co-ordinating private tours for industry and the provincial government since 2005; a role borne from overwhelming requests for tours, explains Dianne Farkouh, OSCA operations manager.

Tour requests come into the OSCA office via the provincial government‘s Department of International and Intergovernmental Affairs, CAPP and as direct requests. The OSCA then distributes the information to the tour operators at the four mines sites: Imperial Oil, Shell Canada, Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada as well as various in-situ operations.

“Seeing is believing,” says Farkouh. “Industry offers this opportunity especially for senior policy makers to come see for themselves.

“There is so much misinformation out there from various sources.”

In formalizing the tour process, it allowed the creation of a tour policy to serve as a blueprint for all stakeholders involved. It also helped streamline requests, preventing duplicate requests from a single source. To ensure consistency, once a year, all stakeholders involved in the tours gather to share numbers and best practices, review policies, network and discuss any opportunities for evolving the tour experience.

“One of the roles we play too, is to ensure that all groups that come in get a really good overview so we ensure that they get the environmental perspective, the community perspective plus they see both mine and in-situ operations.

“It’s all important for a complete and factual overview.”

Additional collaborative agreements with other organizations such as the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association offer increased opportunities to gain that overview. Groups can visit one of the air monitoring sites and learn about environmental monitoring, for example, if time allows.

“We can also connect them with other people. They often go and speak to the mayor, go out to MacIsland. We’ve arranged lunches and presentations, visits to other sites such as Fort McKay. Sometimes with the larger business development tours, we’ve hosted big events for them to meet local suppliers …. So it’s a very collaborative process.”

Whether provincial, national or international, CAPP regularly hosts media tours of the oil sands with the same goal: dispelling the misinformation.

“Canadian oil sands development is unambiguously good for Canada and unequivocally important to people around the world – today, tomorrow and for decades to come,” notes Geraldine Anderson, CAPP’s media relations manager.

Not only are the oil sands a global success story in which Canadians take great pride. Oil sands development represents a tremendous economic opportunity and a largely untapped source of secure, reliable energy for people around the world.

And the world’s media are very interested in seeing the oil sands first-hand. “They want to know what it is, how it is done, and what it means to Canada and the rest of the world. Over the years, we’ve been happy to provide tours for media from virtually all parts of the world ... North America, Europe and Asia,” she adds.

“We’re allowing people to be more informed on the processes, about reclamation, about the region, about Fort McMurray. At the end of the day, what our hope is to do is educate people about the region as well as the oil sands” says Frank Creasey, CEO of Fort McMurray Tourism.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about the oil sands and in partnership with Suncor Energy, the aim of these tours is to inform people.”

Suncor’s tour program has been successful in providing stakeholders with an overview of its operations since 2004, adds Tyran Ault of Suncor’s community relations.

“Tours give us the opportunity to inform and educate people, by providing them with a first-hand look at our operations. We can tell our story while helping our stakeholders understand oil sands operations, how technology helps us reduce our footprint and improve our environmental performance.”

Some notable tours in 2013 included: the U. S. Governors from Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, the Canadian Ambassador to Norway, Environmental Defense, the Ceres Stakeholder Group, Martha Stewart and Global National for a story on the economic benefits of oil sands.

Tourism has hosted public tours for over 25 years and in 1995 launched the Experience the Energy tour packages due to the demonstrated need to provide more of a complete tour package of what the area has to offer. The package includes visits to the Oil Sands Discovery Centre and Heritage Park.

Extensive media coverage of the oil sands has caused these tours to become one of the region’s most popular attractions.

Creasey said interest in these public tours remains strong.

“At the end of the day, it’s pretty amazing how many people admit ‘I’m more informed. It’s quite interesting as to what people leave our region with, what they take away.”

Tourism has recently moved into new offices at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, a move precipitated by a number of different reasons, explains Creasey. They include enhanced collaboration between Fort McMurray Tourism and the Alberta Ministry of Culture to provide a greater visitor experience. In addition to the oil sands tours, visitors have the opportunity to explore all the museum has to offer and and access a wide range of information about tourism in the region through the new Tourism Visitor Information Centre.

REEGAN McCULLOUGH Helping Build Thriving Communities

It has been a busy time as I settle into my new role here as the executive director at the OSCA.

I have met with a number of community, business, aboriginal and municipal leaders to discuss OSCA’s role in establishing meaningful relationships with communities and stakeholders. Through the discussions, I have gained local knowledge and insight on a range of challenges and aspirations that will help to build thriving communities. I look forward to meeting many more of our OSCA stakeholders across the oil sands region including the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Lac La Biche area, Athabasca, Wabasca/Desmarais and beyond.