Friday, October 17, 2014

Best Ever or Worst Possible: The Canadian Oil Sands

My good friend, colleague and mentor, Wayne Dunn, originally from Big River, Saskatchewan has recently begun blogging about Corporate Social Responsibility.  His blog, Business Meets Society, can be found HERE. We have known each other for 15 years and worked on a number of CSR related projects over the years.

His personal profile (short version) reads thus:

Wayne Dunn is President & Founder of the CSR Training Institute and Professor of Practice in CSR at McGill.  He’s a Stanford Sloan Fellow with a M.Sc. in Management from Stanford Business School.  
He is a veteran of 20+ years of award winning global CSR and sustainability work spanning the globe and covering many industries and sectors including extensive work with Indigenous Peoples in Canada and globally.
He’s also worked oil rigs, prospecting, diamond drilling, logging, commercial fishing, heavy equipment operator, truck driver and underwater logging, done a couple of startups and too many other things to mention.  
Wayne has had big successes, and spectacular failures, and hopes he has learned equally from both.

His most recent blog is reproduced here by permission:

Best Ever or Worst Possible: The Canadian Oil Sands

This post might seem out of character for me but I have become so frustrated by such an important issue being communicated so badly.  

Development of the Canadian oil sands is the worst: unsound, unethical, anti-planet and pretty much everything else

Or

Development of the Canadian oil sands is the absolute best alternative for our petroleum addicted world.

Let me start by saying three things.

1.      I really don’t know much about the development of the oil sands, at least not enough to claim any sort of expertise.
2.      I think that we are all addicted to petroleum and that is not a good thing.  But, have I haven’t seen anything from the stop the oil sands group that suggests that stopping the oil sands will help this issue.
3.      I don’t believe that stopping the development of the Canadian oil sands will curtail our global appetite for petroleum produced energy but would simply mean that we would get more of it from elsewhere.

For me this means that the central question in the oil sands debate is about should we consume petroleum energy from the oil sands, or from somewhere else.

Like many of you, or at least those of you from North America, I’ve been bombarded by terribly polarized opinions on the development of the oil sands.

It is frustrating.  This is important stuff.  Yet, neither side seems adult enough to present a well-reasoned argument, or at least they haven’t connected a well-reasoned argument to a communications plan which meant that you could actually hear it

·         We have some industry infomercial like ads on TV that make it seem like just the best thing ever.  No need to ever be concerned about anything.

·         We have a Canadian government who, in their clumsy attempts to assist the industry, have made it seem like they are willing to throw environmental regulations and safeguards out the window to support quick project approval.

·         And then there is the steady parade of over-paid movie stars and celebrities, prancing through the media telling us how absolutely earth and civilization ending terrible the industry is.

·         Can anyone tell me how being a famous celebrity makes you an expert on this subject?

Does anyone else wish that one or more of the key stakeholders was mature enough to trust that some comparative facts and objective (or even partially objective) information would be helpful?

Here are some things I wish that they would tell us

On Environment
Petroleum production has nasty, terrible even, impacts on the environment.  Not just in Canada but globally.  Sure, it is getting better, but not nearly fast enough. 

I wish we had a different way to power our planet and hope that we will soon get to one.  But, in the interim, let’s think about this rationally.

I want to know the comparative environmental impact of oil sands petroleum and that from elsewhere.

·         Carbon: What is the carbon cost per barrel of oil, delivered to where it will be used for oil sands petroleum?  How does that compare to petroleum from other major global oil fields
·         Carbon: How is the carbon cost per delivered barrel changing over time from the oil sands and other producers?  In other words, who is investing in reducing their carbon impact?
·         Water and other Natural Capital / Global Commons inputs: Similar to carbon.  How much is used per barrel (delivered to where it will be used) and how does that compare to other major global oil fields.  What are the trends?  Which fields are getting more efficient at using Natural Capital.

·         Overall impact: How can we quantifiably compare the overall environmental impact of energy from the oil sands with energy from alternative locations; including the cost of transporting it to the end user

And, while we are on the environment can anyone explain why nobody is assessing and monitoring the cumulative impact of oil sands development on the production areas and all the way downstream through the Athabasca, Slave and Mackenzie River systems.


On Human Rights
Much of our planets remaining petroleum reserves are in places that don’t win so many human rights awards. 

Syria, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia and a host of other producing countries have some pretty dismal human rights records.  And, let’s be honest, our western companies and governments have cozied up to these regimes and their human rights track records to get access to their petroleum energy.

To me a key question is around whether we’d sooner use petroleum energy coming from countries and locations with better human rights records.

I think we need to figure out how we can quantifiably compare the human rights/petroleum energy issues so we can have a rational discussion about this dimension.

On Global Security
I’m probably in a bit over my head on this issue, but, on the simplistic side, when I hear that ISIS is funded by millions of dollars/day of petroleum revenue I think that isn't a good thing.

When I see the conflict all over Syria and Iraq that, as I understand it, is financed by if not fueled by petroleum, I think that is not a good thing.

There may be other relevant dimensions but these are three key ones.

Overall, I believe we are better off using petroleum energy that has less, rather than more environmental impact in its production and transport and that comes from more stable countries with better human rights records.

Intuitively I feel that this means developing the oil sands but I would really like to see some research and informed debate around it.

Surely it isn't asking too much of industry, government, NGOs and celebrities to be supportive, informed and conduct rational debate around such an important issue?


5 comments:

  1. When crude oil was over $100 a barrel the tar oil sands were attractive for the oil companies. Now with it at around $80 a barrel, not so much. If it continues at these prices or falls even lower, this may be a moot issue.

    My only bitch with the Canadian tar oil sands is they want to build a pipeline to send the crude to the Gulf Coast for refining. The U.S. gets all the dangers of possible oil spills (this form of crude is very hard on pipelines), plus we get left with all the toxic byproducts left from refining and the refined products get shipped to China or other countries. Very little if any will be available for U.S. consumption.

    As far as I'm concerned, the Canadians can keep it all in house from extraction to final export.

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    1. Canadians seem to have a problem with value added. We ship logs to Japan and China. They say a Canadian invented the wheel, loaded it on a sledge and hauled it to NY to see if someone would buy it and develop it further.

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  2. Biggest problem is that oil companies get subsidies to produce this oil ($4 billion for the U.S. alone) which in my opinion they don't need. Until that changes to subsidizing renewables nothing will change. And the oil companies themselves have been no saints to human rights. They go where the rules are lax, the population ignorant or controlled by a dictator.

    As for using less toxic oil we're getting to the point where that may not be an option. Note that drilling has gotten deeper because the easy oil has already been recovered. Hydrolic fracking has become the primary means of recovery for oil and gas in the U.S.

    Another issue is climate change. While this has been swept under the rug by the right wingers, cities and even our own military are preparing for it. The problem there is that they want to treat the symptoms and not the disease. Florida is building higher sea walls. Mother nature always wins as we know.

    People used to love asbestos and used it in just about everything until it started killing them. We're slowly poisoning ourselves with oil but hey had a great job and the pay checks were sweet. Hope you get my drift.

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  3. The problem, environmentally, is that when all energy costs are considered, using tar sands as a source of energy is more carbon intensive than using coal.

    Let's not.

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  4. Sigh!

    But blessings and Bear hugs, anyhow!

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