Thursday, May 01, 2008

It is Time Alberta Ramped Up Tailing Pond Reclamation Requirements

Back in the day Syncrude was one of the top rated corporate citizens in the country and for sure in Alberta. In the days when Eric Newell and Jim Carter were at the helm, Syncrude’s community involvement, imaginative philanthropy and social responsibility performance was exemplary.

Their fostering and nurturing of aboriginal people in hiring and contracting was ground breaking. They have recently received the first reclamation certificate for any oil sands operator. Their environmental leadership was also well known and respected.

Then things seemed to change when Exxon took over the corporate leadership. The focus became more about maximizing profits and pushing growth over an integrated sustainable an responsible approach to development.

Now it seems to many observers that this project is being run mostly out of Houston more than from Fort McMurray. Syncrude is a complex corporate entity with an interesting mix of other corporate owners. I am sure they are all starting to think about what exactly the impact of the recent death of ducks in their toxic tailing ponds means for them as owners and their social license to operate now too.

There were some players in the oil industry who overplayed their hands using intimidation tactics on Ed Stelmach during the public debate on the royalty review. I can’t think of a single threat those players made then that had any real substance or could be tied to the royalty rate increases…which do not even start until January 1, 2009.

The Government of Alberta is the proxy for the citizens of Alberta to ensure our natural resources are developed in a sustainable and responsible manner. The days of the energy industry self-regulation, self-monitoring and voluntary reporting of their environmental performance obligations should be over. Our government needs to step up to the plate and take over inspections and reassert its responsibility to the citizens of Alberta.

The need to ensure high environmental standards and enforced for air, land and water protection is squarely on the Stelmach government’s shoulders. They also need to take steps to ensure biodiversity and wildlife habitat protection has to be added to the GOA’s active engagement in ecological integrity.

Syncrude was required at one time to set aside $100m for reassurance around their reclamation obligations. That was reduced to a line of credit only. Then the annual $1m fee for keeping the $100m line of credit was eliminated along with the line of credit - with a promise that Syncrude’s reclamation efforts would start sooner. Syncrude has done some reclamation and it takes time but one site in 40 years is nothing to brag about in the bigger scheme of things.

Clearly the Alberta government has to demand that tailing pond reclamation for all producers start immediately and that it be done right – not just rapidly. Suncor, for example, has committed to reclaim its first tailing pond by 2010. That is a 136 hectare site that Suncor says will include rebuilding wetlands to encourage the return of wildlife. We need to see more examples like that coming from industry. Perhaps more huge profits being realized from $100 oil need to be invested in reclamation now and not wait for other generations to carry the can.

Government spending $25m on a PR campaign to “protect Alberta’s integrity” will do nothing of the sort and will actually do more harm than good if that is the key message. You can’t buy integrity and respect with advertising and brochures…you have to earn it. Substance over style and performance over posturing will have to be the new standards of behaviour that must become embed in our provincial culture.

Albertans will expect nothing less from their government and the energy corporations who we license to develop our natural resources. The energy industry is only a tenant. They are not the owner of the resource. Albertans own these resources and we have the obligation to insist our government and our tenants act responsibly and not just expediently in how they are developed.

The ecological tipping point has arrived and the citizens of Alberta are coming out of their cynicism and are mad as hell. I think they will become much more informed, aware, engaged and insistent about environmental performance concerns in all aspects of our provincial progress as an energy supplier.

Anyone who want to get re-elected or requires a natural resource lease and a social license to operate those resources had better take this new Alberta attitude to heart. The public is watching and they are not impressed.