Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

"Is a tar sands truce possible?"

The money quote is here:

"Although Suzuki expressed surprise at Coutu's overtures, CAPP vice-president Greg Stringham says such meetings between companies and environmentalists happen all the time."

We must keep more vigilant than ever. There are more forces in the enviro world who think that these types are their friends and who are willing to privately negotiate away our work to shut down the tar sands in exchange for some tokenistic changes that will devastate our work by virtue of blunting popular sentiment into falsely believing something has been achieved. All environmental organizations should be put on notice-- you will not sell out our movement. We will shut down the tar sands, and we will shut down those who try to make the tar sands "green".


Is an oil sands truce possible?

Canada's forest giants and green activists have reached a ceasefire, but a similar pact in the oilsands conflict remains a sticky proposition, observers say, unless government steps up

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal October 3, 2010 2:06 AM

Over the last two years, forestry executive A-vrim Lazar found himself in an uncomfortable place, sitting across the table from long time arch-foes Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Friends of the Earth.

Both sides had agreed to find "a quiet place" out of the public eye for this unusual bout of meetings, says Lazar, to avoid the temptation to score points in the media.

The small group, five big players in the fore -stry industry and five environmental lead ers, moved around the country -- Vancouver, Toronto and Wakefield, Que. -- keeping to "neutral territory." At certain points, Harvard experts in negotiation were called to help move past tense moments and big snags.

Slowly, the impossible began to emerge -- a tentative truce between two warring sides. In May, they announced their breakthrough. Environmentalists agreed to drop their cam paigns against forest companies. In exchange, the industry committed to undertaking more sustainable forest practices, to protecting 72 million hectares of Canada's boreal forest and threatened species such as caribou, and to recognizing the need to mitigate climate change.

That unprecedented forestry pact has sparked talk about whether a similar rapprochement c-ould be worked out between oilsands producers and environmental groups as a way to end the conflict and negative publicity over the massive strip mines in northeastern Alberta.

The idea got a boost when Syncrude executive Marcel Coutu flew to Vancouver last month on short notice to meet Canada's preeminent environmentalist, David Suzuki -- an event unthinkable not long ago.

Coutu said he's seeking an end to the polarized discussions about the environmental impact of oilsands mining -- toxic tailings lakes, the pace of land reclamation and concerns for water quality in the Athabasca River, wildlife habitat and rising greenhouse gas emissions.

In his search for a "progressive solution," anyone is welcome at the table, even activists like Greenpeace, he says.

Pressure mounted again last week when Hollywood heavyweight James Cameron toured the oilsands and chatted with Premier Ed Stelmach. While impressed with the oilsands' economic potential, Cameron also had words of caution, especially about tailings ponds, recommending a moratorium on them.

"-It will be a curse if it's not managed prop erly," he said. "It can also be a great gift to Canada and Alberta."

For Albertans, there is no way to avoid the difficult, often emotional debate -- whether they're taking sides or merely watching the fireworks. Looking for a way to move forward, some are wondering: Is this the moment for a rapprochement between big oil and green advocates? Is such a thing even possible in this supercharged atmosphere?

There's little time to lose, warns University of Alberta business professor Joseph Doucette, especially given the Obama administration's interest in a low-carbon economy. So far, the U.S. is the only customer for Alberta's tarry bitumen and there are signs of resistance from individual states.

"I honestly hope we are at a critical point," said Doucette.

"I think we have for too long assumed energy security is going to trump everything else and at the end of the day, (the Americans) will just buy our oil. While there's a lot of weight with that view, it is lot less certain than it was before."

In the forestry negotiations, Lazar, chief executive of the Forest Products Association of Canada, learned there's a critical first step: Each side has to acknowledge the other's goals as legitimate.

"We don't hold these discussions with one side, forestry, trying to win only for jobs and the other side trying to win for the caribou. Both sides are trying to find a solution that reconciles those objectives.

"If you deny the other's imperative, you can't have a discussion."

For years the green NGOs attacked forest companies as a major threat to old-growth forests and wildlife and accused them of ignoring issues around climate change. The activists had to embrace the goal of maintaining a healthy forestry industry, with its sawmills and timber cuts.

On their side, the companies had to endorse a business model that would save caribou and other species and take into account climate change.

The energy industry is different, says Lazar, but a similar agreement in the oilsands is not impossible.

"My first advice to the energy industry (is) you have to start by acknowledging that environmental improvement is necessary and don't engage unless the other side acknowledges we're going to have an oilsands industry in Canada."

Can the two sides pass this first test?

Simon Dyer, an oilsands expert for the Pembina Institute, has major doubts.

Dyer says he's skeptical of rapprochement because the companies have yet to signal they take environmental concerns seriously. "They're tone deaf to their critics," he says. "The rhetoric of the industry doesn't live up to any action."

He says the oil industry has too often undermined efforts to mitigate the oilsands' environmental footprint.

F-or instance, a stakeholder committee of environmentalists and industry spent three years developing a policy for protecting wetlands that would be torn up to extract the oilsands underneath. Then, at the 11th hour, Dyer says, the oilsands companies "did an end run" and went to government with their opposition to the recommendations. The wetlands policy died.

This summer, the Energy Resources Conservation Board issued Directive 74 requiring oil sands mining companies to reduce their liquid tailings -- a 20-per-cent reduction this year and up to 50 per cent by 2013.

"We were optimistic and then the ERCB gave free passes to three companies" that asked for e-xtended deadlines, says Dyer. "So the mes sage is their environmental regulations are open to negotiation.

"It suits government and industry to polarize the debate and make environmentalists look like they want to kill the oilsands. They are painting us as the boogeyman.

"That means they don't have to take responsibility for the middle ground" where compromise and action could occur, he says.

Not all environmental groups want to kill the oilsands, Dyer adds.

In any event, Dyer holds little hope of the energy industry and green groups reaching an agreement on their own. "I think chances of a resolution are low because of complete abdication of the federal and provincial governments. We're willing to talk to industry but the responsibility lies with government.

"Environmental rules have to be set by government; companies can't just do it on their own because they have to justify expenses to shareholders."

The U of A's Doucette says any sign of dialogue, like the Coutu-Suzuki meeting, is a good thing. In his view, oil companies are more open to new ways of doing things than some environment groups are.

"You don't want to paint all with the same brush, but some of them have discovered truth with a capital "T" and are unwilling to budge from what they see as the truth."

Doucette sees a lack of common ground in t-he oilsands debate as a barrier to rapproche m-ent. Onesidewantstoreducecarbonemis sions absolutely; the other wants to increase production. It's tough to see how two sides could reach agreement when their goals are so different.

That's why the government must play a stronger role in moving the debate forward and coming up with better environmental standards, he says.

"The government of Alberta works for you and me, so they have to be that strong voice," Doucette says. "Then we have to realize we are talking about an acceptable level of environmental damage, not ' no' damage. You can't drive cars and build buildings without some damage."

What industry wants is certainty, says Doucette. "I hear that all the time."

Government regulation can provide that certainty. "It may mean that costlier regulation will mean loss of some investment. But there would be a public determination of that."

Just as the green movement has a range of views, the oil industry isn't monolithic, either. About 18 month ago, a group of five big oilsands producers quietly came together to form the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative. Nexen, Suncor, Statoil, ConocoPhillips and Total E&P Canada formed the group, committed "to achieving tangible improvements in environmental, social and economic performance through collaboration and technological innovation."

Meanwhile, the main industry lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, downplays the significance of the Suzuki-Coutu meeting and any suggestion that it signals a turning point in the battle between energy companies and green forces waging the "dirty oil" campaign.

Although Suzuki expressed surprise at Coutu's overtures, CAPP vice-president Greg Stringham says such meetings between companies and environmentalists happen all the time.

In June, Stringham says, he met for the first time with Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund in Europe and invited them to tour the oilsands. He also had meetings with ethical investors.

But there's no move from CAPP for talks with environmentalists on an industry-wide basis, as there was from the foresters.

The two sides aren't so far apart, says Stringham, who went along with Cameron on his helicopter tour of the oilsands. Stringham was pleased with the director's approach, calling it "pretty open-minded."

Most of the disagreement with environmentalists is not about the issues, but "over how fast it can be done," says Stringham -- a point that environmentalists would dispute.

But there's one issue that makes a rapprochement more difficult in the oilpatch than in the forestry industry. If the world wants to fight climate change, it must move to a low-carbon future. Do oilsands, with their higher greenhouse gas emissions, have a role in that shift? Can that issue be debated when some oil companies for years did not accept the science of climate change?

"The industry knows there will be a transition to a low-carbon future," says Stringham. "The question is how long is the transition -- 10 years or 50 years?"

But with carbon reduction, the timing is critical, says Greenpeace's Mike Hudema.

Greenpeace wants the government to halt expansion of oilsands production as a way to limit future greenhouse gas emissions. The existing plants and mines would be phased out as Alberta makes the transition to a low-carbon economy based on renewable energy, Hudema says.

"We don't see a green way to do the oilsands.

"We've been successful in getting our message about the environmental damage," Hudema concludes, "but not in getting policy changes."

There's the rub. For all the sound and fury, environmentalists haven't convinced government or oil companies to make major changes in regulations or to slow the fast pace of development.

That awareness was a key factor in getting environmental groups to the table in the forestry talks, says Lazar. "They realized that by campaigning confrontation and name-calling, they were not getting the progress they wanted."

But there are also fundamental differences between forests, a renewable resource, and oilsands that make a truce tough, says Beatrice Olivastri, chief executive of Friends of the Earth.

Forestry firms have always worried about their supply of trees. Their yearly allowable cut depends on tree planting specified in forest management agreements. "Forest products are by nature sustainable, so those talks started from a place with more prospects," Olivastri said. That dynamic isn't there in mining.

Ken Chapman, a public policy consultant in Edmonton, says that in the public's view, neither side is in a good position to take the lead in finding a truce. Environmental activists are not viewed as credible; they're seen as just using the oilsands issue to raise funds, Chapman says. But the public is also skeptical of industry advertising that leaves the impression everything is just fine.

The missing link is obvious, he says. "We have to look for a role for government."

Trying to mitigate environmental damage is not a cost of doing business -- it has to be part of the business, he added.

Albertans are tired of all-talk-and-no-action debate, Chapman says. They want "responsible prosperity," not another gold rush.

"We did this (oilsands development) fast and dirty and that has to change. People are starting to lose pride in the province."

Oil companies think they only need legal licence from government, but in fact the industry's social licence to operate comes from the people, says Chapman.

Lazar says that when the forestry talks started, neither side was sure where they would end up. "But everyone believed 'wouldn't it be cool if we could do this,' and over time we began to believe in ourselves."

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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