A portion of the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine is seen from an overlook near Fort McMurray, Alta. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Canada will continue to push the important role that Alberta's oilsands play in the North American marketplace, says Environment Minister Jim Prentice, despite a telling article appearing in March's National Geographic.

"It's very difficult to see the North American marketplace developing in an orderly way for energy without the oilsands being part of the equation," Prentice told CBC News on Wednesday.

The March issue of the National Geographic provides its estimated 40 million readers with a 20-page article that features pictures of sludge-covered tailing ponds and the sprawling oilfields.

Many of the pages show before-and-after pictures of the oilsands near Fort McMurray, Alta., while graphically describing how the oil is extracted — from the forest being cut down, to the peat, dirt and moss being removed, to the water stripping the bitumen from the sand, and the contaminated water flowing into tailings ponds.

The Alberta government has called the article "fair" and indicated that it appreciated that the author acknowledges the province's work on carbon emissions.

The article indicates that by 2020, Alberta carbon emissions will level off and by 2050, they'll decline to 15 per cent below their 2005 levels.

"Alberta has a rigorous environmental regime in place," said Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner. "We sometimes don't get a fair shake in the eyes of the public opinion and the media. That being said, we can do better."

'Just one article': Prentice


Environment Minister Jim Prentice, shown here in a file photo, defended Canada's development of the oilsands following the publication of an article in National Geographic on Wednesday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Despite the article turning international attention toward the environmental impact of the oilsands, Prentice dismissed it as "just one article" and added he doesn't always agree with what National Geographic publishes.

Canada will be pushing ahead with the clean energy dialogue agreed to by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Ottawa last week, Prentice said.

"Certainly the oilsands are always going to be part of that discussion but it's a discussion that focuses on that we have as clean [an] energy resource as possible," Prentice said, adding his discussions in Washington next week will relate to all sources of energy.

The environment minister has argued that supplying oil to the U.S. could be part of bilateral plans that would also seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create cleaner fuel. The plans could include a common cap-and-trade carbon-market system and tougher fuel standards for coal and oil industries in North America.

He said the two countries also need to discuss concrete action plans to reduce not only greenhouse gas emission levels, but North American dependence on foreign oil.

"We're of common mind," Prentice said. "We want to reduce our carbon footprint and have the cleanest source of energy as possible. But the oilsands are an important part of the overall North American supply and demand for energy and they will continue to be.

"The answer to all of this is technology, investments in technology, and that's why we'll be working together with the United States to that end," he said.

Strategic asset


A Syncrude employee looks out over a pond on reclaimed land near the company's oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

The oilsands are an important strategic asset for Canada, Prentice said, "and a very important part of our natural endowment in terms of our natural resources."

Canada has been battling a reputation as a purveyor of dirty oil in light of the Obama administration's push for the development of clean and green energy.

Prentice said Canada wants to see the oilsands developed in a responsible way but will continue to use them as a strategic, natural resource asset partially because of the broad economic impact they have across the country.

U.S. oil production currently covers about 40 per cent of American consumption and the Alberta oilsands are the largest foreign source for hydrocarbons to the country.

Though the oilsands are part of the equation, Canada also wants to see more hydro developed and increases to its natural gas stream, Prentice said.

Prentice added the carbon emissions from the oilsands are dwarfed by the thermal coal plants in the U.S., accounting for less than one per cent of North America's emissions.

"There are ways to improve the way in which we produce oil from the oilsands," Prentice said. "There are ways to reduce the carbon footprint."

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also jumped to the defence of the oilsands on Wednesday.

 "National Geographic is not going to teach me any lessons about the oilsands," he said. "This is a huge industry. It employs Canadians from coast to coast. We have oil reserves that are going to last for the whole of the 21st century."

The oilsands need to be more sustainable, Ignatieff said, but added the Alberta industry is a world leader.

Illustrates magnitude


Darryl Hincock, from South Brook, N.L., inspects his haul vehicle before starting his shift as a driver at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

But Mike Hudema, an energy spokesman with Greenpeace Canada, said the National Geographic article will educate many people on the oilsands and their effects on the environment. For some people, it will be the first time they see what a toxic tarpit looks like, he said.

Those "before-and-after exhibits" in the magazine are very telling, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior lawyer with the Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council.

"When you see what's actually happening, you begin to understand the magnitude of the environmental and public health problems," Casey-Lefkowitz said.

Obama's administration has been mounting efforts to shift the United States toward a green energy economy while placing caps on carbon emissions.

The transition will mean that the U.S. is "not going to need oil the same way as we have in the past," Casey-Lefkowitz said.

"Looking at more dirty and environmentally destructive sources of fuel like the tarsands is really a way of the past for us and especially when we look at the proposed expansion of the tarsands," she said.

The environmental destruction and pollution that an expansion of the tarsands would cause doesn't fit with the push for a green energy economy in the U.S., she said.

Beyond the emissions, the oilsands are destroying the Athabasca River, raising cancer rates in nearby communities, destroying the boreal forest and animal habitats, she added.

"There really aren't technology fixes to make it better at this point," she said.

The Bloc Québécois and NDP also slammed the Conservative government for not doing enough to clean up the oilsands.

"We hope [the article] will help move all governments, especially the federal government that has not used tools at its disposal to protect the environment, to protect the health of aboriginals and others in the region and to … end subsidies to the big oil companies for those projects," said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

With files from the Canadian Press