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Why Clean Energy Canada's Claims Are Confusing and Inconsistent

12/11/2014 05:35 EST | Updated 02/10/2015 05:59 EST

Some social media users compare Twitter to a fire hose. Information blasts out in a constant stream, at times making it difficult -- in fact, impossible -- to keep up.

So, as a public service, let me make some sense of one activist group's recent twitter outpouring by recapping what happened late last week and through the weekend in connection with Clean Energy Canada's bizarre release of its new -- and according to some experts -- sketchy comparative report on job numbers.

Oil Sands Benefit

Follow along carefully. Clean Energy Canada's (CEC) claims are confusing and at times completely inconsistent.

The report's release was led by long-time eco-activist Merran Smith, former Sierra Club of B.C. staffer, former ForestEthics spokesperson and current CEC Director.

Let's be clear. Ms. Smith, who lately represents herself as no enemy of the oil sands but simply a clean energy advocate offering balanced, objective information to inform a public debate, has a subjective and frankly flawed point of view.

I need to set the scene. Here she is discussing a full-page ad five years ago that featured an image of an oil-soaked Canada on a map of North America, over a headline that stated: "Canada's Tar Sands: the dirtiest oil on earth." In an accompanying news release, Ms. Smith went on to say "Dirty Tar Sands oil truly is a 'fossil' fuel that has no place in North America's green energy future."

As an aside, of course she was wrong in that assessment: The "dirtiest oil in North America" is not produced in Canada, but just outside Los Angeles, where the Placerita oil field generates about twice the level of upstream emissions as Canada's oil sands; and the title "dirtiest oil on earth" goes to Brass crude blend from Nigeria, that generates upstream GHG emissions more than four times higher than Canadian dilbit.

So I'm sure Ms. Smith would concede her views on the oil sands are biased if not overtly hostile and, as the full-page ad shows, misinformed.

With that background out of the way, let's look at Ms. Smith's twitter account over the weekend, following the release of her Clean Energy Canada report. It's interesting viewing.

In response to my challenge that Ms. Smith's organization retract the main claim that clean energy employs more people in Canada than oil sands, her group had this to say over social media:

I responded, then attached some proof:

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Clearly, CEC spokespeople in fact were saying precisely that.

As Tides Canada's CEC Director, Ms. Smith and her team apparently mishandled a release to such an extent that nobody seems to know what the group is attempting to say - beyond the usual "I hate oil sands" posturing, that is.

"Mr. Battershill's main beef," Ms. Smith stated in a Huffington Post blog subsequent to my own piece on the same site, "is that we are overstating the economic impact of the clean energy sector by implying that it's bigger than the overall oil sands sector. (It isn't.) Specifically, he accuses us of excluding manufacturing and other services in our oil sands operations numbers."

But in comparison to the tweets from Ms. Smith and her old ForestEthics colleague Tzeporah Berman, well... I'm still not clear.

In preparing to wrap up her latest blog post, Ms. Smith offered this by way of explanation:

"We cast around on jobs numbers and soon found an apples-to-apples direct employment number: According to a 2013 Petroleum Human Resources Council report, 22,340 people work directly for oil-sands producers. So with respect to direct employment, in 2012, more people worked in these clean energy sectors than worked in the oil sands."

So, to recap: the organization first claimed there were more jobs in clean energy than in oil sands, then the organization denied it, then it released a brand-new blog post reaffirming in fact that it DID say precisely that in the first place.

Are you still with me?

Here's an idea: rather than try to make sense of this informational shambles, let's hear from an academic expert that's been watching the week's debate closely.

Dr. Jennifer Winter is Associate Director of Energy and Environmental Policy at The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. She released a short analysis on the discussion, titled "How Many People Really Do Work in the Oil Sands?"

Dr. Winter's bottom line?

"The problem really seems to be one of measurement. It's not entirely an apples-to-apples comparison, so in that, the CEC report is a little misleading. The Petroleum Human Resources Council numbers (from which CEC took its oil sands figures) provide a lower bound on oil sands employment; an accurate comparison between the "clean energy jobs" and "oil sands jobs" would require numbers on total employees at companies involved in the oil sands."

And further, Dr. Winter isn't sure CEC is even considering a useful metric.

"The discussion about which sector has more jobs misses a very important point: jobs are costs. The more jobs per dollar of output produced - whether its oil in the oil sands or "clean energy" -- the less efficient production is. We could clearly generate all the clean energy we want by riding on bicycles to generate electricity, but that isn't an effective use of time, nor an efficient way to produce electricity."

Ms. Smith, I feel your pain. You've worked hard to reinvent yourself from anti-oil sands activist to objective clean energy information source. The ride has been bumpy.

Rather than waste those U.S. pass-through funds on hard-to-understand media events, in the spirit of information exchange in aid of a confused public, let me suggest this: let's you and I have a genuine open debate.

Sure I'm busy with my business, but Ms. Smith, I would happily make time for you. Please respond to my genuine offer. We need to talk.

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