Published on March 2nd, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi
'Green Wash'? Tar Sands Companies Form Alliance to Reduce GHGs & Environmental Impacts
In what some enviro groups are calling a ‘nice gesture’, but others, such as Greenpeace, are calling ‘green washing’, twelve Alberta Tar Sands developers — the largest oil sands producers in the world — including Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Cenovus Energy Inc. and ConocoPhillips Co., have joined up to form Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).
The primary purpose of this alliance is to eliminate “redundancy in their research operations” (see source, below), specifically, through removing intellectual property barriers to clean technology sharing. If one or more of said companies is pursuing environmental technology that over-laps with another’s research, then a given company can defer to the more developed or promising technology (such as an industry-proposed carbon capturing and storage technology*) and focus on its own specific area of environmental impact.
By legally opening up this intellectual property — through knowledge sharing — unnecessary, less-promising or redundant research would be eliminated and cost saving achieved.
The Regulatory Structure
It is an innovative, if untested, corporate approach to environmental cost-savings by industry players. However, since there is no official, governmental, regulatory framework forcing emissions cuts, critics are dubious as to what the ‘green’ commitment of this new industry entity will actually achieve in terms of real reductions.
Oil sands producers are under increasing pressure from the public and watchdog groups to cleanup their environmental footprints as they “develop” the sands. Scrutiny of the tar sands region over climate impacts has increased since the Obama administration refused approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (for now) early this year.
Some suspect that official regulatory rules are just around the corner and that this alliance is an attempt to forestall, or preempt, any strict regulatory guidelines by the government.
The COSIA Charter – Its Mission and Commitments:
According to the COSIA charter, member companies commit to:
- Provide visible leadership and accountability both within our individual companies and within our broader alliance.
- Drive to accelerate improvement in environmental performance as measured from a baseline in the priority areas of Tailings, Water, Land, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
- Collaborate with governments and other stakeholders to execute a world-class regional environmental monitoring program.
- Accelerate the pace and scope of environmental innovation, working with a broad range of participants within and outside of Canada.
(Note: this list is abridged, visit COSIA link for full list of commitments)
Further, the COSIA charter also states:
- Our industry has environmental impacts, which we will work to minimize. Action will reflect a strong commitment to innovation and collaboration and be focused on key environmental priorities so that together we will deliver accelerated improvement in our environmental performance.
- COSIA will result in faster and more effective research and development and environmental innovation through the use of complementary technologies and resources.
The Current Environmental Policy
The COSIA announcement follows a recent, major initiative by the Albertan and Canadian governments to increase monitoring stations in the tar sands region in order to measure how much pollution tar sands operations are adding to waterways, increasing GHG emissions and altering ecosystems and wildlife behavior (see ClimateWire, Feb. 6).
Environmental groups are concerned that further development of the Alberta tar sands will sabotage Canada’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 17% by 2020. Currently, GHG emissions are growing faster than in any other sector, and are projected to double, annually, by 2020 (source: Pembina Institute). The Pembina Institute also cites “GHG management weaknesses” at the Federal level to buttress this concern.
Additional members of COSIA are: BP Canada Energy Co., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Devon Canada, Imperial Oil, Nexen Inc., Statoil ASA, Suncor Energy Inc., Teck Resources Ltd. and Total E&P.
While it is tempting to dismiss this alliance and corporate mission as grand green-washing, with proper public oversight, this “world-class regional environmental monitoring program” could lead to promising climate management strategies and mitigation technologies (carbon sequestration, even geo-engineering). It could be an effective corporate model.
My concern is that, under this IP sharing scheme, fledgling research into promising technologies could lose out (be canceled) to better funded, already-in progress, but less-promising, research. Previously funded/invested projects have greater momentum and pressure to proceed.
If the commitment of COSIA is genuine, then some type of research review panel should be set up to gauge funding priorities (cost versus promising, enviro/climate mitigation impact). This panel membership should be diverse and composed of non-industry-affiliated experts (with whistle-blower protections).
Also, there is the concern of creating an economic bloc or monopoly (corporations rarely act first and foremost to protect the public interest), but according to the Sci Am article cited, COSIA conforms to Canada’s Competition Act. Still, the public should maintain pressure on the group to honor its transparency commitment.
Barring either of these, my concerns remain.
* The carbon capture tech here would be to capture CO2 emissions from burning natural gas to generate steam, which is used to loosen gooey petroleum out of Albertan sand formations. GHG emission from tar sands is greater than traditional drilling due to this combustion of natural gas. A carbon sequestration plan involving underground storage of captured CO2 proceeds could be a major technical challenge and expense.
Some source material for this post came from the Sci Am article: Tar Sand Companies Aim to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions