November 2011

Social licence under the microscope

A problem with the oil sands or a question of policy?

By G. Lanktree


Don Thompson was driving down a congested Highway 401 in late September when he heard on the radio that about 300 people had gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to oppose Alberta’s oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. “I reflected on the fact that there were probably 300 people a minute passing that spot on the highway, and they do this every day,” said Thompson, the executive advisor of sustainability and outreach at Canadian Oil Sands Limited.

It is not hard to understand why, according to recent polls, “75 per cent of Canadians support development, as long as it’s done in an environmentally responsible manner,” Thompson said. “The vast majority of Canadians understand that they need a safe, reliable, affordable source of energy to make their own lives work. I think most [of the protesters] are more concerned with the ongoing use of fossil fuels than they are about the oil sands per se,” he added. And dependence on those fuels is not something oil producers can do a lot about. “I’m not convinced that people are against oil sands as much as they are against what they represent. Despite the fact that there are a small number of people who are against the oil sands, they are going to be part of the energy mix for some long while.”

On the other hand, activists are calling for a rapid switch to renewable energy sources. “We have moved to a particularly vicious and dirty technology, which destroys the environment,” said protester and Carleton University professor Manfred Bienefeld.

But according to Thompson, 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from our consumption, and not the production of fossil fuels. “The best the industry can do is solve 20 percent of the problem,” he said. “We can’t do it alone, and we need all segments of society to contribute.”

“We can maintain the same lifestyle with less energy consumption, using better technology,” Thompson added. “But the unfortunate thing is that the transition is going to take a long time. It’s not responsible to say we should go off fossil fuels in X number of years.”

“I think, the industry is recognizing that it needs to do more to have its social licence to work in the oil sands,” said Nathan Lemphers, a senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute. Progress, he said, is being made through cooperation between regulators and the industry, citing the example of the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board’s Directive 74, a tailings pond performance criteria, with which the government has now given the industry clear guidelines and timelines for when they would like the tailings ponds solidified. “This has helped the industry to make informed decisions on how to improve its environmental management,” he said. “Companies have demonstrated that they can solidify a tailings pond.”

For the industry, there is an acute need for good communication. U.S. President Obama’s decision on the fate of Keystone XL is due this month, and the stakes are high for both industry and the public to engage each other successfully.

Ultimately, said Thompson, we should not be discussing whether or not, but how, the oil sands go ahead. “‘Oil or no oil’ is not the question. We cannot run our world today without oil,” he stated. “The question is: ‘if not from Canada, then from where?’ And I think sometimes people get confused.”

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