Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Environmental groups blacken reputation of Alberta tar sands

Making mention of the Pew Foundation/Charitable Trusts here is ridiculously over-simplified. The groups that the Pew fund, through the money from Sunoco (who continue to refine tar sands oil and make multiple billions), are overwhelmingly among the most tame and market driven ones-- deflecting actual campaigning against the tar sands. The story below, while it contains valuable nuggets of information, must be making those who misdirect resistance to the tar sands smile.


Environmental groups blacken reputation of Alberta oilsands
Global movement exercises growing influence over the development of lucrative Canadian industry
Claudia Cattaneo, Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

CALGARY -- With the oilsands now symbolizing deforestation, climate change and corporate greed, the Alberta energy industry is up against a growing network of green activists.

In 1949, when the Athabasca oilsands were still a two-bit experiment, J. Howard Pew, chairman of Philadelphia-based Sun Oil Co., summoned to his office the new head of his Alberta operation. He picked up a thick file labelled Athabasca Tar Sands and showed it to George Dunlap.

"I believe the tarsands will, some day, be of great significance to the needs for petroleum in North America," the patriarch said, according to reports at the time relayed by historian Earle Gray in his book, The Great Canadian Oil Patch. "I want you to be sure that Sun Oil always has a significant position in the Athabasca tarsands area."

Eventually, the company did, and Pew left two huge oilsands legacies.

One is Calgary-based Suncor Energy Inc., the successor of Sun Oil in Canada, and the oilsands' top single producer.

The other is the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the oilsands' fiercest critics.

The tale is indicative of a new chapter for Canada's vast unconventional oil deposits, one in which the rules are increasingly set by the global environmental movement, whose ambiguous loyalties, anti-development motivations and provocative tactics make it tough to please or even figure out.

In the past year, a network of non-governmental organizations has taken up the anti-oilsands cause, aiming at least to slow down development, at most to shut down altogether what has become the backbone of Canada's economy.

Many rely on funding from such well-heeled U.S. foundations as Pew, one of the top charities in the United States with nearly $6 billion in assets, or the Menlo-Park, Calif.-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a legacy of the co-founder of computer giant Hewlett Packard with assets of more than $7 billion.

Greenpeace, Ecojustice, Water Matters and the Sierra Club are among those that have opened or increased operations in the province or will do so shortly. Pew, the Natural Resources Defence Council and Earth Justice are among those bolstering the campaign from abroad.

The impact has already been material. Imperial Oil Ltd. is facing a major delay in its $8-billion Kearl oilsands project after losing the latest round of a legal battle this week with a coalition of green groups. The U.S. government has passed a law that could ban use of crude from the oilsands in the federal fleet. California has introduced new low-carbon fuel standards. Ethical investors are putting pressure on companies to exit the business. Meanwhile, the oilsands' image has taken a beating.

Emboldened by the successes, the groups are warning even more efforts are in the offing, including stepping up legal challenges.

Meanwhile, with the oilsands having become emblematic around the world of everything that is bad about oil, some are expressing concern that groups representing outside interests are gaining a disproportionate share of voice in a Canadian issue.

"Where our governments are going to have to play an important role is: Are they going to let other countries' special interest groups set the public policy agenda for our country, both at the federal and provincial level?" said Tim Hearn, former CEO of Imperial Oil Ltd., in his last interview before retiring in March.

Water expert Kim Sturgess, chief executive of Alberta WaterSmart, a non-profit group in Calgary working with upstream petroleum companies to reduce their use of water, said the industry needs to find sustainable solutions, not more critics.

"My concern is that we have groups come in that don't share our vision for our province," she said.

Allen Wright, Calgary-based executive director of the Coal Association of Canada, said the groups are not promoting debate, but shutting it down.

"Things have become religion," he said, marvelling at the financial backing of some. "I would kill for a budget like that."

Seattle-based Steve Kallick, manager of the Boreal conservation program of the Pew Environment Group, said when he travels to Alberta he is quickly reminded about Pew's role in starting the oilsands industry and asked to justify his group's anti-oilsands stance.

His response is that no one, not even Pew, could have imagined the level of activity under way in Alberta and its impact on the Canadian Boreal Forest, the conservation of which is one of the top causes embraced by his charity.

"The tarsands pioneers, including the members of the Pew family who were part of Sunoco or Suncor companies, were trying to figure out to extract oil from the tarsands economically," he said.

"Now that we are talking about expansion over a gigantic area of Alberta -- the size of Florida -- all of a sudden these environmental issues that have never been addressed are becoming a real significant problem."

With a lot of the financing for oilsands expansion coming from United States, and that country being the largest market for the oil, he said Americans need to have a say.

"In a sense, Americans are partners in this endeavour, so we bear responsibility as well to make sure that the environmental issues are addressed," he said.

Greenpeace, the world's largest environmental advocacy group, jumped into the fray last year by opening a three-staff office in Edmonton led by Mike Hudema, a 31-year old native of Medicine Hat, Alta.

Hudema has gained international notoriety with his dramatic stunts, including disrupting a fundraising dinner hosted by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, when his group managed to unwrap a large banner that read: "$telmach: the best Premier oil money can buy."

Hudema said he joined the group, funded by its members and individual donations, because he wants to contribute to an alternative energy vision for the province that doesn't involve the oilsands.

"We are definitely seeing more and more groups and individuals become concerned," Hudema said.

Simon Dyer, director of the oilsands program at the Pembina Institute, which has a 20-year history in Alberta and for a long time was the main NGO voice on oilsands issues, said the growth of the movement has brought the sector the attention it deserves.

The institute's oilsands program is funded in large part by the Hewlett Foundation. Pembina also receives some funding from consulting to oilsands companies such as Suncor and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, governments and first nations.

Pembina's goal is to ensure oilsands development is done properly, but in the context of a transition to a more sustainable energy future, he said.

"Pembina focuses on solutions," said the wildlife biologist. "We want to ensure the environment is protected in Alberta. The impacts that are associated with oilsands are such that we want to fix these problems."


Ecojustice Canada Society. Offices: Vancouver, Toronto; opening office in Alberta in next few months. Revenue: $4.05 million (2007)

The Pembina Institute. Offices: Calgary, Drayton Valley, Alta., Edmonton, Gatineau, Que., Toronto, Vancouver. Revenue: $4.2 million (2006)

Sierra Club of Canada. Head office: Ottawa. Revenue: $3.5 million (2006)

World Wildlife Fund. Head office: Washington, D.C. Revenue: $160.8 million US (2007)

Polaris Institute. Head office: Ottawa. Revenue: n/a

Parkland Institute. Head office: Edmonton. Revenue: n/a

Greenpeace International. Head office: Amsterdam, Netherlands. Revenue: 171.4 million euros

Natural Resources Defense Council. Head office: New York. Operating income: $75.1 million US (2007)

Pew Charitable Trusts. Head office: Washington, D. C. Revenue: $304.1 million US (2007)

David Suzuki Foundation. Head office: Vancouver. Revenue: $6-million (2006)

Water Matters. Head office: Canmore, Alta. Revenue: n/a

Toxics Watch Society. Head office: Edmonton. Revenue: n/a

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

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