From: Issue 40
Ending the Battle over Bitumen
Is it time for Canada to create a stewardship council for the oil sands?
Anyone who has been paying attention to environmental issues in Canada knows that relations are downright toxic between the oil industry, environmentalists, aboriginal groups and local communities. The government as “referee” hasn’t been helping. Our once peaceful country is boiling with anger. Conflict is brewing.
As tensions rose across Canada with Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver calling environmentalists “radicals,” I tried to imagine a solution. How can we develop our natural resources in a way that is respectful of the environment and stakeholders? Could the solution that brought peace to forestry’s “war in the woods” 20 years ago be the answer to ending Canada’s “battle over bitumen”?
The proposal is this: an oil stewardship council that would be modelled on the world-renowned Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). It would be a member-based, third-party audited certification system in which the four groups (oil industry, environmental, aboriginal and local communities) would share power equally. The federal government would be involved in a non-voting, observer role, as it is in Canada’s current FSC system.
There are hurdles – certified oil sounds like an oxymoron. ForestEthics co-founder Tzeporah Berman compared it to “organic cigarettes.” But as we’ll explore here, certification could improve the power dynamics and reduce the negative impacts of oil extraction. It is also highly doable. Oil, which flows through a common pipe, could be certified on a percentage basis just as recycled fibre is now.
Two people who saw promise in the concept are individuals who have actually done it themselves, on the ground, and in the boardrooms. Antony Marcil, past president of FSC Canada, said forestry is an extractive industry that overcame a history of abusive practices by adopting FSC standards. The fishing industry followed with the Marine Stewardship Council. “Why not an oil stewardship council with environmental and social standards that could be the basis of independently certified crude oil?” said Marcil.
Chris McDonell, co-chair of FSC Canada’s board and manager of aboriginal and environmental relations at forest product manufacturer Tembec, thought the concept was “right on the mark.” But he started by posing a key question: Is the leadership there? Specifically, he asked, “Where are the leaders in the sector or in the supply chain?”
McDonell said it wasn’t those close to the ground who saw the potential of FSC certification – it was the people far down the supply chain who directly faced customers. “The bigger the company, the more options they have to purchase raw materials. That’s why when an Ikea, a Home Depot or a Kimberly-Clark says something, everybody in the world pays attention.”
David Schindler, an internationally-respected environmental scientist at the University of Alberta, agreed that it will take that kind of pressure in the oil sands. “When CEOs start feeling that people are reluctant to buy, then they’ll come to the table. But it won’t be out of goodwill or green feelings.”
The idea of an oil stewardship council works in theory, but would any oil company join? Gord Lambert, vice-president of sustainable development at Suncor Energy, said he is familiar with FSC and praised its process as being as important as the product. He also was frank in recognizing that the oil industry has a problem. “The status quo is unacceptable,” he said. “You’re seeing gridlock. You’re seeing a failure to engage with one another on a human level….We’re not getting enough multi-stakeholder dialogue going.”
On the world stage Canada is getting a black eye for being a pusher of “dirty oil.” Internal government briefing notes to Oliver have warned his ministry about rapid growth of the resource’s development and its cumulative impacts on health and the environment.