Government and industry decision-makers have yet to come up with an effective strategy to respond to environmental group pressures on oil sands development.

Thinking of visiting Alberta, Canada? Think again.

— Corporate Ethics International

A billboard campaign in US and UK cities that compares oil-soaked birds in the Gulf of Mexico to those in a Syncrude Canada tailings pond and urges would-be visitors to boycott Alberta is the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between environmental groups and government and industry defenders of the province’s oil sands development. Reaction to the campaign has ranged from indignation to calls for a united diplomatic and political front. But government and industry decision-makers have yet to come up with a workable strategy to deal with the protests.

Groups like the environmental organizations involved in the oil sands controversy can pose a formidable challenge for government and industry targets. Because the groups oppose existing policies they lack easy access to decisionmakers and, therefore, need to dramatize issues in ways that attract public support. Protests, boycotts and pressures for legislative restrictions are standard tactics.

The oil sands case is similar to other environmental and resource disputes, including those over the East Coast seal hunt, the Great Whale hydro project in Quebec and the clear-cutting of old-growth forests in British Columbia.

The seal hunt controversy saw animal welfare groups use shocking images of hunters bludgeoning “baby” seals to galvanize public opposition in Europe, where most seal pelts were sold. The pressures culminated in a European Union ban on importing seal pup products and a boycott of Canadian fish sales in the lucrative British market, forcing Ottawa to end the seal pup hunt and to rebuild the industry based on more mature seals. But a major increase in the size of the hunt combined with careless remarks about a leading antisealing group by the Premier of Newfoundland revived the protests, resulting in a complete EU ban on seal products in 2009.

In Quebec, a coalition of environmental organizations and Native groups opposed the provincial government’s plan to build a huge hydroelectric project on the Great Whale River in northern Quebec that would have had farreaching effects on Aboriginal peoples, their environment and their resources. With Hydro-Québec negotiating power contracts with Maine, Vermont and New York State, they launched consumer boycott actions and lobbied legislators in all three states to oppose the deals. A dramatic voyage from Ottawa to New York City by Cree and Inuit paddlers in a hybrid of an Indian canoe and an Inuit kayak focused attention on the Natives’ plight. The campaign led to the cancellation of key contracts, including a multibilliondollar agreement with New York State, which forced the Quebec government to shelve the project.

In British Columbia, environmental interests and Native organizations launched a public campaign to stop the clear-cutting of old-growth forests in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island by the former forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel. The groups sought to convince international corporate customers to sever contracts with the company and to convince consumers to stop buying wood and paper products from what they dubbed the “Great Bear Rainforest,” populated by rare and endangered bear species. The campaign forced MacMillan Bloedel to seek a compromise, which saw it phase out clear-cutting in favour of less intrusive methods.

Some observers argue that the protest groups’ focus on the oil sands is misplaced because they are only a small part of the global energy mix. US coal-fired power plants have far more serious environmental effects. However, the groups see the environment as a common heritage and local threats as an international concern. The oil sands are an easily depicted example of problems linked to unconventional oil resource exploitation.

Others, citing a study by the Canada West Foundation, which suggests that international media coverage of the oil sands debate is neither widespread nor overwhelmingly critical, counsel a stay-the-course approach. But while protest groups use the mass media to reach a broad audience, their key goal is to engage a core of politically active supporters who will participate in protest actions and encourage others to take up the cause. Still others contend that the United States needs oil sands energy and that security-of-supply considerations will trump environmental concerns. Even so, in 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, giving the president the power to tax highcarbon energy imports. Some claim that the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 will make the oil sands a more attractive alternative. But congressional opposition to the expansion of TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline to carry bitumen from the oil sands to refineries on the US Gulf Coast and public concern over the subsequent Enbridge Inc. pipeline ruptures in Michigan and Illinois show that the Gulf spill has increased the pressure for tougher oil transportation and development regulations.

What lessons can governments and the oil sands industry learn from these cases?

  1. You can’t beat the protesters at their own game. During the seal hunt controversy the Canadian government used Native hunters in a futile attempt to save the “baby” seal hunt. The EU exempted Native sealing from its import ban, but indigenous seal products were sideswiped by the overall prohibition. Likewise, fanciful government and oil sands industry advertising campaigns have proved to be no match for images of dead ducks in tailings ponds or the moonscapes depicted in a National Geographic photo essay. Indeed, it was the sight of a huge oil sands dump truck parked incongruously on the National Mall in Washington during the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival in 2006 that spurred US environmental groups into action.
  2. Get the facts straight. Protest groups are adept at exploiting weaknesses in their opponents’ case. Animal welfare groups used Ottawa’s own documents to contest its defence of the seal hunt. The James Bay Cree hired experts who challenged the credibility of a Hydro-Québec feasibility study for the Great Whale hydro project. Those involved in the oil sands controversy are using the same tactic to raise doubts about governments’ and industry’s environmental credentials. For example, a report by the Pembina Institute uses rival studies and government and industry documents to challenge 23 claims about the environmental record of the oil sands on issues ranging from greenhouse gas emissions and the safety of tailings ponds to land reclamation. Another study by the same organization employs the industry’s own figures to counter its assertions that in situ extraction produces lower emissions than surface mining.
  3. Sing from the same hymn book. Governments and industries have complementary roles to play as regulators and developers of resources. In the seal hunt case Ottawa was the original target of the protesters’ pressures. But the government came to recognize the importance of working with the industry to manage and represent the hunt. In contrast, interaction between governments and the oil sands industry has often been muddled. Much of the public criticism of oil sands projects has focused on the toxic tailings ponds that cover 170 square kilometres and continue to grow. Premier Ed Stelmach has called for their elimination “within a few years.” In 2009, the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board issued a directive requiring oil sands projects to begin reducing tailings from the ponds by 2011. Only two of nine projects are expected to be in compliance. In 2010, moreover, the board approved new projects that will not meet the initial requirements, on the assumption that they will achieve the long-term standard.
  4. Know how to engage your targets. As the seal hunt, Great Whale hydro and clear-cutting examples show, environmental groups know how to bring pressure to bear on their government and industry targets. In the seal hunt and clear-cutting episodes, governments and industries figured out how to manage their response. But as in the Great Whale hydro case, governments and the oil sands industry have yet to do so. For example, reacting to a letter from 50 members of the House of Representatives to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her department to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline extension pending a full environmental assessment, the Alberta government took out a $56,000 advertisement in the Washington Post emphasizing the importance of oil sands energy to the United States and the province’s commitment to protecting the environment. Despite this, the representatives’ appeal, backed by interventions from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, was successful. US legislators are highly responsive to their electors’ preferences. It is not enough to try to influence them through the national media in Washington, where Alberta is just another lobbying interest, and a foreign one to boot. They have to be engaged and support has to be mobilized at the local level as well. (The State Department appears to be leaning toward approving the pipeline, but it remains controversial. In a less-than-ringing endorsement, Clinton says that the United States is “either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada,” until it creates a low-carbon economy.)
  5. Know when to throw in the towel. Even as Ottawa was under intense pressure to ban the seal pup hunt, fisheries officials inexplicably raised the quota, making the end virtually inevitable. In April 2008, in what has been described as “one of the biggest public humiliations the oil sands have suffered,” 1,606 ducks perished in Syncrude’s Aurora tailings pond after the company failed to deploy devices to deter them from landing. A company official later admitted that it had made a “mistake.” But rather than taking its lumps, Syncrude unsuccessfully contested federal and provincial charges, thereby keeping the focus on the tailings ponds and transforming them, in the eyes of many observers, into a symbol of the industry’s checkered environmental record. Two Alberta cabinet ministers made matters worse by downplaying the incident before the Premier reined them in.
  6. Don’t demonize your opponents. In 2006, residents of Blanc Sablon, Quebec, who were outraged at the revival of antisealing protests in Europe attempted to prevent a group of observers, including a Swedish member of the European Parliament, from viewing the hunt. With his suspicions about sealing confirmed, the member cosponsored a motion calling for a complete EU seal product prohibition. In the same vein, last summer, Alberta’s environment minister, adopting a classic shoot-the-messenger approach, dismissed the findings of a peer-reviewed study challenging claims by the province’s industry-funded Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP) that higher-than-normal levels of pollutants near oil sands sites are a naturally occurring phenomenon. His colleague the Minister of Energy went further, attacking the credibility of one of the study’s co-authors, David Schindler, a respected University of Alberta ecologist and a former member of the province’s Environmental Protection Commission. Belatedly recognizing the need to improve its environmental stewardship credentials, the provincial government established an independent panel to assess the conflicting evidence. The federal government then jumped in, creating its own arm’s-length advisory group to review the RAMP regime. (Ironically, three federal departments, Environment Canada Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Health Canada, are members of RAMP’s steering committee.) The federally appointed panel’s conclusion that there are “significant shortcomings” in the RAMP system has left both levels of government scrambling to put an effective monitoring program in place.
  7. Reach out to the engaged public. The engaged public plays an important role in shaping the outcome of environmental and resource disputes. Ottawa regained control of the sealing agenda following the EU’s seal pup import ban by creating a royal commission to examine all aspects of the industry. It also began responding to representations from the public on an individual basis, explaining Canada’s policy and inviting writers to make their views known to the commission. The tactic worked because the commission was a credible attempt to deal with the issue. (It ultimately recommended that Ottawa end the seal pup hunt.) Following the Syncrude tailings pond incident the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers launched a similar initiative using a dedicated Web site to engage the public on oil sands issues. But the Web site contained so much public relations spin (“Sand and clay settle out over time in tailings ponds…and eventually the ponds can be reclaimed”; “Carbon capture and storage…has been championed as the missing piece in solving the oil production greenhouse gas puzzle”) that it reinforced public skepticism about the producers’ case.
  8. Work with the protest groups. Sometimes the targets of protest campaigns work with their opponents to reform controversial practices. In 1998, MacMillan Bloedel reached agreement with Native groups and their environmental organization allies on a plan that would see clearcutting replaced by a variable retention harvesting approach. Last year, the Forest Products Association of Canada reached a deal with environmental groups to suspend logging on a huge tract of boreal forest from Quebec to British Columbia in return for an end to boycott campaigns against Canadian companies with boreal forest operations. Some of the groups participating in that agreement are also involved in the oil sands debate. Governments and the oil sands industry could begin with them.
    Last spring, Suncor Energy attempted to sound out prominent environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, on the prospects for more formal discussions. At the same time, Suncor was suing Greenpeace for an earlier trespassing incident at one of its oil sands projects. Not surprisingly, the initiative foundered. Soon after Syncrude was convicted in the tailings pond duck deaths, the company’s board chair asked environmentalist David Suzuki to “broker a truce” between the two sides, with similar results.
  1. Do something. In the seals and clear-cutting cases governments and industries achieved temporary or longer-lasting success because they addressed the protesters’ concerns. In the Great Whale hydro case they failed to do so and lost. The Harper government’s climate change policy seems calculated to facilitate oil sands development. In November 2008, the government proposed a Canada-US climate change accord to capitalize on American energy security concerns and shield the oil sands from punitive measures. More recently, it has opted to follow the US lead in committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, by taking equivalent measures.
    In a move that highlights US dependence on the 614 coal-burning utilities that supply 57 percent of American electricity needs, Ottawa plans to require Canadian producers to plants by means of carbon capture and storage technology or to replace coal with cleaner alternatives when the plants reach the end of their commercial life. Canada has 21 coal-fired plants that provide 17 percent of its electricity. Carbon capture technology, which is a focal point of the 2009 Canada-US Clean Energy Dialogue, is still in an experimental stage. If it becomes operational it will likely be of more benefit to coal-based utilities, with their concentrated carbon discharges, than to oil sands operations, the emissions of which are dispersed and thus more difficult to contain.
    The Alberta government points to improvements in the oil sands industry’s environmental performance. But it is sticking to an intensity-based regulatory approach that limits per-unit output while allowing overall emissions to grow — a factor that will loom large as production increases. US ambassador David Jacobson calls the oil sands an important contributor to North America’s energy security, although he stresses that “more needs to be done” to improve the industry’s environmental record. The US administration is an indispensable ally in promoting acceptance of oil sands energy. But as Jacobson’s comment shows, it needs Canada’s help in making the case to its own domestic audience.
  1. When you get on top, stay on top. After successfully reestablishing a hunt for older seals after banning the seal pup hunt, Ottawa unwisely raised the three-year quota by 150,000 to 975,000 — close enough to a million to give anti-sealing groups a new basis on which to oppose the hunt. Newfoundland premier Danny Williams compounded the problem by appearing to link the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which had led the early protests, to FBI terrorist investigations. His comments provoked the threat of a lawsuit from the fund and propelled the group back into the forefront of the opposition. By 2009 the EU had imposed a total ban on seal products, putting Ottawa and the industry back to square one.

In sum, the East Coast seal hunt, Great Whale hydro and clear-cutting examples suggest that Ottawa, Edmonton and the industry cannot maintain control of the oil sands agenda by continuing their current approach. They need to tell it like it is, show they are serious about protecting the environment and find better ways to make their case. The lessons learned from these experiences are a good place to start.

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