Oil sands industry faces rough road
Posted by mhudema on June 25, 2008
CALGARY, Alberta: Oil sands producers in Canada have a rough road ahead persuading environmentalists and an increasingly concerned public that they are serious about protecting the environment while investing billions of dollars in new projects.
The industry’s lobbying group and several chief executives began a new communications campaign this week aimed at countering a full-court press by environmentalists over the impact of oil sands development on air, land, water and local communities.
Top executives admit they have come up short responding to concerns over their operations and explaining the progress they say they have made in areas like investing in carbon capture technology and land reclamation.
“As a result, we’ve been a bit overtaken by the other side of that equation, which resulted in what we think is an unbalanced view of our industry, so we do need pick up the ball and tell our side of the story,” Marcel Coutu, chief executive of Canadian Oil Sands Trust, said Tuesday.
The company is the biggest owner of Syncrude Canada, a joint venture that develops oil sands.
The main forum is a Web site sponsored by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, known as CAPP, at http://www.canadasoilsands.ca, where readers can learn how oil sands are produced, pick up information about environmental issues and are encouraged to comment.
Environmentalists are skeptical, saying the gesture is empty unless companies take real action to improve operations. They kept up their call on government for more stringent regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions and protect forests and rivers.
“The industry is obviously interested in dialogue and we continually present solutions as we raise concerns about oil sands development,” said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental research group. “But we don’t have time for a lengthy dialogue while we are continuing the expansions under business-as-usual technologies.”
Some green groups have called for a complete moratorium on development while others say operations can be cleaned up with enough investment and effort.
Canada and the United States face a major dilemma over the ecological costs of more than $100 billion worth of planned oil sands developments amid concerns about the reliability of traditional oil supplies and record high gasoline prices.
Alberta’s oil sands, rivaling Saudi Arabia’s conventional reserves in size, are seen as a secure source of North American oil. The industry has said oil sands output could nearly quadruple, to four million barrels a day by 2020, through both mining and drilling projects.
But environmentalists have taken great pains in recent months to highlight that the projects emit much more carbon dioxide than conventional oil fields.
The industry also came under heavy criticism for the deaths of 500 ducks on a toxic Syncrude tailings pond in the spring.
The message is hitting home in some quarters. At a meeting in Miami last weekend, the U.S. Conference of Mayors called for guidelines and purchasing standards that would discourage the use of high-carbon fuels like those derived from oil sands.
“We think that the best PR strategy for CAPP and for the industry would be to acknowledge their problems, that there are real environmental challenges in the tar sands and to make a concerted effort to actually solve the problems,” said Steve Kallick, executive director of the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, based in Seattle.
Oil bosses said that they were not under the impression that the problems would be easily solved by just a communications plan.
“At the heart of it is for both sides to listen and take the concerns that folks raise seriously and to talk about what we’re doing about them,” said Kevin Meyers, president of the Canadian division of ConocoPhillips. “I have no doubt that along the way we’re going to learn a few things that perhaps we’re not doing well enough and we need to change the way we go about those elements.”
Green groups said that they believed it was possible for some meeting of the minds with oil companies, but sharply criticized Alberta’s government for what they saw as skirting issues by avoiding tougher emissions reduction goals and mounting its own communications campaign to sell the oil sands as clean.
“These are global challenges – energy security is a big problem for the United States and Canada,” Kallick said. “We want these guys to be able to develop responsibly and we don’t think we have to sacrifice the environment.” But the government, Kallick said, ” wants to create a false choice here, and that’s not the answer.”