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Monday, July 05, 2010

Who Can Albertans Trust to Tell the Truth About Oil Sands?

The Quest for Truth in the Oil Sands is the title of the Todd Hirsch op-ed in today’s Globe and Mail. It captures much of the angst Albertans are feeling as citizens and the owners of the oilsands. We know this from some of the values surveying we have been doing with Albertans in the last few years and more extensively in 2010.  This survey was commissioned by OSRIN, the Oil Sands Research and Information Network out of the University of Alberta.
The subtext of Todd’s piece asks if the oil sands are an “economic bonanza” or an “environmental apolalypse.” There is so much spin and self-serving selection of fact that everyone know that the whole truth is not being told. Who can we trust and believe about what is happening in our oil sands these days? In Alberta today 89% of us believe the oil sands are either extremely important or very important to our future prosperity. Any government or industry that risks betraying our trust on oil sands development will face serious consequences from the voter and the public.

Progress is being made on the environmental front and a more rational approach to the pace and purpose of development is happening now too. There is more of a long term integrated view that is becoming the normative oil sands development model. This is in stark contract to the “damn the consequences” lets make a quick buck attitude that was so common in black gold rush of the recent past.

That said the facts are that conservation, habitat, air, water and reclamation concerns dominate the minds and values of Albertan around oilsands development. There is a sense that not enough is being done in these areas of concern to convince Albertans that our government or our industry tenants “get it” about how we want this resource developed.

The politics and policy approaches to oil sands development are still mired in mendacity, mediocrity and even the mundane. We are giving the resources away as we trade reasonable royalty rates in exchange for short term jobs or to appease industry threats that investment will dry up. Our environmental laws are not as good as we tout and our enforcement has been lack lustre. That is true notwithstanding the recent successful Syndrude prosecution of 1600 migrating ducks who drowned in tailings ponds due to corporate negligence.

Corporate and government communications efforts are focused mostly on PR positioning and not about sincere efforts at communicating and solving the problems. There are efforts being made and progress is being achieved but we don’t seem to hear or even believe those stories and when we do we sense they are mostly self-serving. We get snippets of stories but it seems the culture of spin is so pervasive that we just can’t bring ourselves to trust any good news about the oil sands. It is truly sad that the level of skepticism and cynicism about the oil sands is so endemic in Alberta and beyond these days.

Even the recent effort by the Alberta government to score a media coup with the Premier’s Letter to the Editor in the Washington Post has some interesting twists and turns. I applaud the efforts of the Premier to get out there and start telling the Alberta oil sands story in a broader context. Unfortunately the Washington Post Editor did not see the newsworthy merit of the letter saying it was more about “Canada Day than anything new.” So the province bought the newpaper space to promote their message instead. Even a cursory read of the Premier’s letter shows how wrong that “Canada Day” perception was about the content and context of the Permier’s letter. Still such a newspaper ad looks like the kind of boiler-plate damage control apologizing advertising we always see from businesses that screw up. Earned media is more believable than purchasing advertising space as a way to get a messgage out any day. But you still gotta do what you gotta do to try and communicate I guess.

I really applaud the Premier’s points about the safe, secure, reliable energy supply from the Alberta oil sands to the States – and the fact we are the largest suplier of oil to the Americans. That is a critical fact that is not well understood or appreciated by the Americans...and their ignorance is largely our fault.

As for GHG and other environmental issues, they are critical concerns but they need some context, like the Premier’s “letter” provided. If the entire value chain costs of oil sands development is considered and compared to entire value chain of other oil sources like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Angola and Algeria then the dirty oil tag on Alberta’s oil sands is not justified. All fossil fuels are dirty to varying degrees but to focus only on certain aspects of the oil sands in isolation and to ignore the greater political, environmental, human and social costs of other jurisdictions is a lobbying tactic that needs to be challenged.

Alberta is one of the few oil energy providers that have a democracy, the rule of law and stable currency and government. In addition there is only casual corruption in our culture compared to the rampant corruption in other supplier nations. You don’t have to worry about staff being kidnapped for ransom and you should not ignore the costs in human life in the internal conflicts in many other energy provider jurisdictions. Those costs are nonexistant in Alberta. I suggest the oil sands are by comparison is actually “cleaner,” than the sources form these other jurisdictions, all things considered. I may be right in that contention but that is still not good enough and Albertans know that too.

Getting back to Todd’s point about who are we to believe in the Babel about oil sands, there is a need for the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth to be discussed in the public realm. We have to stop the focus on issues management, message framing and media massaging that thrives on reporting conflict and not about construtively informing the public and helping us get a handle on the issues and the implications.

Our recently complete conjoint research survey tracked 8 crucial values Albertans have around the development of the oil sands as the owners of the resource. The insight we gained adds to the dilemma and disconsternation of the government and the industry as they continue to be tone deaf over what Albertans really want attended to in the development of their oil sands.

Safe secure reliable supply to the American market is a given. No “atta boys” for stating the obvious. Technology as a means to overcome environmantal and other abuses is not seen as the only a valid mitigation strategy we need to use to overcome harmful affects of oil sands development. It is acknowledged by Albertans that technological solutions are the responsible and reasonable thing to do but not the only asnwer to the concerns. No “atta boys” for doing the obvious here either.

The rationalization of the pace of development that does not cause boom and bust cycles is also now to be expected of intelligent investors and our industry tenants. We need to be sure only those who deserve their social licence to operate in Alberta are given the responsibilty and opportunity to exploit this public resource. The pull out threats from some elements in the energy industry (not all) and the rapid retreat by the provincial government in response to the reasonable and rational royalty regime is the epitome of fear and collusion against the public interest. That kind of intimidation by the tenants has to stop too.

None of the actions by government or industry on royalties has been seen to be in the greater public interest, either long term or short term. Misleading messaging and school-yard style bullying was the rule of the day around royalties. And all it did was show Albertans who really runs the province...and they do so all too often behind closed doors. Not approprite behaviour in any way.

So I think Todd has struck a nerve and hit a nail on the head at the same time with his op-ed. So who can we trust and believe in the noise around oil sands development? Albertans have to believe in someone and trust that someone is serving the public interest. We are mature and wise enough as people to know there are real issues and they are complicated. We know we can handle bad news. It seems that is pretty much all we get now about our oil sands development anyway. I would like to call for more carity and comprehensive information to the public instead of the over-simplified pap we get now in the oil sands messaging. We need and deserve that kind of comprehensive candour. It needs to come from the province and the companies that are in the business of developing our oil sands.

In the meantime governments, as our proxy holders of our oil sands interests, and the energy industry, as our tenants, had better start thinking about public perceptions of their worthiness to govern and to justify a social license to operate with our public assets.

Safe to say, Albertans are not amused. In fact, we are tired of being bemused and abused by the PR machines and machinations of government and industry around oil sands development. We need a reason to believe and trust government and industry aroudn oil sands issues. We must have some serious evidence of their integrity, honesty, accountability, transparency, environmental end economic stewardship around oil sands development. The stakes are too important for all concerned. Failure is not an option for oil sands development for Albertan. However, failure is an option for government and energy companies if public opinion and perceptions continue to distrust and disbelieve them.