National Geographic and the oilsands: what the heck are they complaining about in Calgary?

I’ve been scratching my head for a few days now, trying to make sense of the uproar out West about the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine. The venerable yellow-framed publication, famous for the quality of its pictures and focus on conservation, ran a 20-page section on Alberta’s ‘oilsands’. It illustrates the dark side of the sand operations – you know, the scoured landscape, the sick people, the dead birds, the complete lack of restraint from the industry.

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

The Oil Patch loves playing the victim

Gary Lamphier in the Edmonton Journal denounces it as eco-propaganda. Predictably, the National Post is outraged. Biased, soft-handed tree-huggers from New York, don’t they know they need Canadian oil to drive from their country home to their Manhattan office?

But reading the magazine made me wonder why the heck they are complaining about.

Sure, a text in National Geographic about the oilsands would be cause to send Cheryl Rubb at Syncrude’s media relations service into a panic. But as it turns out, the oil patch, as well as the Alberta government, have plenty of reasons to rejoice: even a cursory reading of the magazine’s text shows that it contains all the messages they’ve been trying to get through to Americans for years:

  • Canada is America’s no. 1 oil supplier and has reserves greater than Saudi Arabia’s.
  • Canadian oil is the best way to reduce America’s dependency on oil from the Middle-East.
  • Alberta’s oilsands are open for business: it’s full steam ahead and development will not slow down.
  • Extraction even of the deeper oil is plenty profitable.
  • In the grand scheme of things, the oilsands’ carbon footprint is negligible and First Nations are seeing this as an opportunity.

As for the environmental aspect of the oilsands, the text makes it clear that it’s a Canadian problem that has no impact on the U.S. Canada wants to turn part of their own countryside into a hellish hellhole to pump oil south of the border. It’s their business.

I’m sure the oil patch’s PR wizards see it that way, if they have any wits. Curiously, it’s the newsroom hacks who get blinded by rage. Lamphier can’t even get past the pictures:

“No one reads National Geographic. Like Playboy, it’s all about the pictures. And you can bet that everyone from Al Gore to David Suzuki to the righteous folks at Greenpeace will be using the magazine’s grim photos to convince the pliable masses, and U.S. politicians, that the oilsands are indeed the world’s greatest eco-disaster.”

Right. Apparently publishers have a responsibility not only to be balanced, but also not to publish pictures that could be used to support a public relations campaign. Interesting how the ethics of journalism shift with who is doing the spinning.

If Lamphier and the National Post editorial board like to pretend American public opinion is ripe for an eco-crusade involving oil production right now, it’s fine. After all, we’re used to frequent high-pitched whining from either of those sources. But nobody should think their outrage has anything to do with reality.

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3 Responses to National Geographic and the oilsands: what the heck are they complaining about in Calgary?

  1. Hello Final Spin,

    I would agree with you on all counts, the actual content of the NG story is relatively balanced, but as you say…no one reads NG, they look at the images. I work for CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) and our belief is that while NG did a heck of a job capturing before and ‘current’ shots of the boreal and oil sands impacts, they missed on the after shot. There are no photographs of reclamation and only one shot out of 21 is of insitu drilling (though this method is responsible for half of oil sands production). CAPP tried to address these issues while providing focus on the good facts in article. FYI…Response can be seen on at:,March2009Issue.aspx

  2. finalspin says:

    Thanks for sharing, Mr. Davies. I am not surprised to see CAPP take the lead on the PR response.

    By the way, I don’t agree that people don’t read texts in national Geographic (that’s a quote from Gary Lamphier up there, not my own words).

    Good blog monitoring guys, and good outreach. All very professional.

  3. Hi Final Spin,

    I would disagree with you that it was a balanced article, but only in the “picture is worth a thousand words” sense. The text itself while fairly balanced is completely overshadowed by the images of Tolkien’s Mordor. While I do read the text at both the National Geographic and Playboy what I remember are the images and it is those which I suspect will linger for myself and many other readers long after the words are forgotten.

    Where I do agree with you is that very few in the oil sands industry have any legitimate right to protest given their past and current behaviour. By that I mean the sick people, the dead birds (now 3 times the original admitted number), the scoured landscape and the lack of restraint.

    The industry is simply crying foul because the NG reaches a larger audience than they themselves traditionally seek to influence.

    The heavy oil industry while very good at lobbying established politicians has foolishly ignored the North American consumer. I don’t think it any coincidence that a cap and trade system is currently before the US Congress.

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