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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Don't Let EU Define Our Oil Sands Emissions Policy

Dr Andrew Leach has an interesting vision around oil sand greenhouse gas emissions policy in an op-ed today.  Dr. Leach is an Energy, Environment and Resource Economist at the U of A and a fellow blogger.

I will be on a panel with Mike Hudema of Greenpeace and Rich Hyndman of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to respond to Dr. Leach's lecture entitled "How Our Approach to GHG Policy Could Kill the Oil Sands."  It is at 6:30 reception and presentation from 7-9 pm March 3 at ETLC Solarium, 2nd floor on the U of A campus.

We at Cambridge Strategies Inc. have recently done some values-based research with the Oil Sands Research and Information Network on what values Albertans what to see guide and drive the development of their oil sands.   This research found that 89% of Albertans believed that the oil sands are key to the future prosperity of Alberta.  The overarching question for Albertans is not should we develop the oil sands but how should we develop this enormous resource.

Like Dr. Leach I see some of key issues that can't be allowed to compete against each other but must be integrated as as co-creative opportunities around GHG emissions and the development of the oil sands.  Co-creative oil sands development opportunities must craft and integrate diverse opportunities for increased prosperity that enhance and harmonize with environmental obligations.

The corporate social license to operate in oil sands development must be part of a cultural shift around oil sands development.  That shift must stretch beyond merely qualifying for a social license to operate.  We need developers and operators to aspire to be worthy of public acknowledgement as a preferred steward of this vital and publicly owned natural resource.

GHG emissions are the #1 oil sands development value concern for 21.2% of Albertans.  It is #4 for all Albertans in a random sample.  It is behind concerns over reclamation, habitat protection and ecological monitoring. Water usage concerns are #5 in priority but these values all inter-relate to one another and have to be dealt with as a whole to make a real difference.

There are major political factors at play around GHG.  Dr. Leach points to some like the international perceptions of oil sands, the European Union specifically.  He also deals with the carbon pricing challenge, and points out that Alberta's "way out of this mess is through carbon pricing."  I totally agree but the political ideology/mythology in the right wings that dominate the Alberta political power structure see carbon pricing  as a job killing tax and therefore it is "politically"off the table. Ironically Alberta already has a modest carbon "tax" based on large emitters only.  It is a penalty approach akin to an "abuser fee" and is so low that it does not really encourage behaviourial changes in industry.

There is another below the radar political reality around CO2 emissions and oil sands development.  Our research shows that 57% of Albertans believe that there is some capture of oil sands related CO2 emissions.  The truth is virtually none of oil sands produced CO2 is currently captured.  While oil sands CO2 emissions are only  about 15% of Alberta's total CO2 emissions they get almost all of the media attention, here and abroad.

The facts, while interesting, often have precious little to do with perceptions and in politics perceptions are reality. If Albertans come to realize that the truth of oil sands CO2 capture is vastly different from their perceptions and their expectations there is a potential for serious political consequence.  Will Albertans feel betrayed, mislead or worse yet, lied to, once they realize this discrepancy between facts and perceptions?  Will the $2billion fund dedicated to carbon capture from other non-oil sands emissions be enough to mitigate what some have referred to as the oil sands CO2 betrayal factor?

There is a tense relationship that is not getting any easier between the citizens of Alberta as owners of the oil sands, the industry who are tenants and the government who are the property managers of this vital resource.  Leadership is lacking in all spheres.  The acrimonious debates between environmentalists, industry and government produces a great deal of heat. I am not so sure they add much light on the issues so citizens can have a meaningful understanding of what needs to be done, what is being done and is it enough to get it right.

I applaud the University of Alberta students from the Energy Club, the Commerce and Energy and Environment Group from the School of Energy and Environment are sponsoring this series of dialogues of Oil Sands Visionaries.   So Albertans, as owners of the oil sands, come out tomorrow night and get some information and insight about how your oil sands can be developed in ways that align with your values. 

Hope to see you tomorrow night.