Last week, a Globe and Mail story by Norvall Scott broke news of a “business-led lobbying effort to create a partial moratorium on oil sands development in order to free up conservation land” in northern Alberta’s heavily scarred Athabasca region. The move reflects a desperation on the part of some of Alberta’s largest tar sands companies to shed their ‘dirty oil’ image.

The lobbying effort consisted of a January letter signed by Environment Canada and the corporate likes of Shell, Imperial Oil/Exxon, PetroCanada, and several other large companies with existing tar sands leases in Alberta, calling for the province to suspend land lease sales until at least 2011 in three areas around Fort McMurray, saying any further sales “would continue to reduce the available options for the establishment of new conservation areas.”

I know what you’re thinking: that somehow you’ve been sucked into another dimension – because what in the world would prompt these companies, generally prone to become apoplectic at the merest whisper of a ‘moratorium’, a ‘pause’, or any market-interfering ‘brake-touching’, to sign a letter urging the government to do exactly that for the sake of conservation concerns?

It probably isn’t because some executives woke up one morning with a sudden burning passion to save Alberta’s boreal forest from the cumulative effects of their own operations.

Rather, it is more likely that the oil signatories of the letter are attempting to respond to a cascading image problem.

“The Most Destructive Project on Earth”

The problem is that one of the most important products for these oil companies, crude oil produced from their tar sands operations, is increasingly being recognized as very ‘dirty’ energy.

The world is waking up to the fact that getting oil out of Alberta’s tar sands isn’t the conventional game of popping some holes in the ground – it requires the outright clearing of globally significant and enormous swaths of boreal forest, enormous inputs of natural gas and fresh water, with the sector as a whole emitting more greenhouse gases than any other industry Canada.

This reality is resulting in tar sands companies losing access to select markets.

For example, California’s low-carbon fuel standards, intended as a measure to combat global warming, would prohibit the selling of gasoline derived from Alberta’s tar sands in that state.

A similar federal provision in the U.S. prohibits “military and other U.S. federal agencies [from filling] up with gasoline derived from a non-conventional source that emits more greenhouse gases over its life cycle than conventional crude.”

And the trend seems to be growing – New England states, Illinois, and several other jurisdictions are considering similar low-carbon fuel standards, and senator Obama has pledged to implement a federal standard if elected president.

What this means is that tar sands impacts, once marginalized as a kind of pet cause du jour of hand-wringing environmentalists, are now actually threatening the future price that Shell, Imperial Oil, PetroCanada, etc. will be able to fetch for their tar sands crude; in other words, the truth is beginning to hurt.

This is a victory for those organizations that have been working diligently to spread the truth of the destructiveness of the tar sands, both climatically and in general!

A State of Denial

The response of oil companies, and of their friends in the Alberta government, has been twofold. The first aspect has been a counter-communications campaign to paint the tar sands green in the eyes of the world, most often manifesting as a version of the mantra: ‘we can develop the oil sands while protecting the environment.’ For example, Premier Stelmach was recently quoted in Washington as saying: “There’s a myth out there that oilsands production comes at too high an environmental cost.”

The corporate websites of tar sands companies are replete with feel good stories and commitments regarding environmental protection on their tar sands leases – for example PetroCanada’s ‘100 point promise for the environment’ on its controversial Fort Hills lease.

Supplementary to the gobs of corporate/government green-wash and rhetoric is a feverish corporate effort to develop and prove a carbon capture and storage (CSS) system that would be able to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by the development of the tar sands ( If safe and wide-scale CSS could be implemented for the tar sands, the industry would be able to shed its ‘climate criminal’ reputation, thereby eliminating the threat of low carbon fuel standards.

For its part, the Alberta Government has established an ‘Oil Sands Environmental Management Team’, for which it has spent taxpayer dollars on a Christopher Columbus-themed recruiting campaign inviting applicants to ‘Take on the World’ (read: take on the problem of its ‘dirty oil’ image).

Unfortunately, the problem for the oil and gas industry is that all these efforts have yet to achieve the desired effect. The truth is still out there, as it were, and it’s spreading.

The release of the ‘partial moratorium’ letter signals that things are getting desperate on the communications front – because it departs from what I perceive has long been a kind of silent code between government and industry in Alberta.

The Silent Code

During my brief stint in environmental advocacy in Alberta, I quickly came to the realization that there is a kind of virtual, un-spoken contract between the provincial government and the oil and gas sector regarding environmental protection. It goes a little something like this:

Alberta Government: ‘We will continue to put the interests of the oil and gas industry first by placing little practical emphasis on environmental protection; we feel what is good for oil companies is good for Albertans.’

Big Oil Companies: ‘Even in instances where we see shortcomings in your environmental oversight, we will keep quiet because we understand that you’re the hand that feeds us and that there are others who are more than eager to take our profits if we step out of line.’

Breaking the Code

But ‘the silent code’ no longer seems convenient to those oil and gas companies that wish to appear more progressive, because it lumps the failures of government and industry together, making both look bad. And judging by the relative ineffectiveness of Premier Stelmach’s ‘Ra-Ra-Tar Sands’ rhetoric in Washington and elsewhere, the industry’s image problem is only getting worse.

Thus, it made sense last month for some of the tar sands companies, who already have their leases, to sign the letter and shed some of the heat generated by the destructiveness of their operations by splitting ranks with the government and placing this particular ball squarely in Stelmach’s court to drop.

Big Oil’s Best Friend in BC

While jurisdictions around North America are considering restricting the penetration of tar sands crude into their markets in an effort to combat climate change, British Columbia’s Energy Minister, Richard Neufeld, seems to be more than interested in actually facilitating the expansion of the tar sands by welcoming new pipelines across our province and tankers to our coast.

However, those of you who have been following the activities of Dogwood should know that fossil fuel companies are having a similarly difficult time painting their projects green here in BC.

Sooner or later, we’re going to make the image problems of Enbridge, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and others bad enough that they’ll consider taking a similar route as was demonstrated in Alberta’s ‘partial moratorium’ letter – dropping the burden of accountability squarely onto Richard Neufeld, as it should be.