Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Could Dying Ducks in Toxic Tailing Ponds Provide a Watershed for Oil Sands Development?

The demise of up to 500 ducks on the Syncrude tailing ponds may be the crystallizing event that finally brings the public to outrage over the way the oil sands are being developed. The ducks landed on the ponds on Monday but apparently the company did not report it to the government. An anonymous tip was how this came to the attention of government. Not good!

Cambridge Strategies did a Oil Sands Discrete Choice Modeling Survey last November and found that the dominant value drivers for Albertans around responsible and sustainable oil sands development was wildlife habitat, GHGs, water and reclamation. It is potentially the perfect storm for industry and government based on Albertan’s dominant value drivers from our survey.

This situation involves wildlife habitat, reclamation and water issues. That is three of the four top value drivers and oil sands issues that concern Albertans. The story about "ducks dying in a toxic tar sands tailings ponds" has gone viral in the Internet. The story has legs and it activates some core values of Albertans and others about the environment and oil sands development.

These events have the potential to push the industry out of deferring its duty to reclaim the ponds. For government and regulatory authorities, enforcement inertia will turn into urgency and a new focus on more effective environmental enforcement. For ENGOs they have been given a sad but saleable gift to draw even more attention to oil sands issues. They will become more energized to press their narrative about dirty oil and toxic environmental consequences of oil sands development.

There are rising expectation levels by the public on government and industry to be more responsible and accountable than in the past - especially around environmental issues. In the “old days” providing insurance against damages was the norm. When bad things happened somebody got a cheque and that was that. Think Love Canal.

The standards then moved to assurance. The expectation changes toward industry and government required that they show us that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent and mitigate possible damages. And they had to convince us of the appropriateness of the steps being taken. The use of air cannons as scarecrows to keep birds off the tailing ponds is an example of trying to meet this expectation level.

The emerging public expectation standard is becoming one of “ensurance.” Now the public expects planning and procedures to be in place to try and make certain that some things will not happen at all. This is a very rigorous test indeed but as the public perceives that there is insufficient engagement on ecological issues the natural response is to raise the bar of expectation and perhaps legislation.

Yes, I think we may have just seen the crystallizing event that will create the overt shift in the public consciousness to become engaged and more demanding about the consequences of oil sands development. The public’s questions and concerns that could emerge from this value activating event will be very interesting. How the government, industry and ENGO players respond will also be very telling.

If the governments and industry just try to push the PR on us with platitudes and rhetoric they will do more harm than good – for citizens and their own credibility and reputations. If the ENGOs respond by merely raising the rhetoric and the volume of their rant, they will be perceived as only adding to the problem.

If the players just try to fix the blame instead of fixing the problem they will all be convicted in the court of public opinion and they will all be hanged together as a result.

Government enforcement better be quick and convincing. Industry commitment to reclamation better be quick and convincing. ENGOs better present the best information and science they can muster. All parties have to look for ways to collaborate so government and industry can achieve a more integrated approach to sustainable ecological outcomes from development of the oil sands.

The death of these ducks may be the equivalent of the proverbial butterfly of chaos theory that flaps its swings and causes a storm of public opinion to rage in Alberta and elsewhere.