What’s Up with “Greening” the Oil Sands?

Fiddling around with the environment is not going to score anything big for oil companies, regardless of where they are digging. These days, you lament about the climate change, you get an Oscar. You go to Alberta, and six out of 10 residents will tell you that the province’s breakneck economic expansion is not worth the price of hurting Mother Earth. That’s how big the global warming public headache has become.

Of course, Big Oil is neither blind nor ignorant of the sentiment. But it is not only public sentiment that is bringing in the dread. As an example of just how serious environmental risks are, note that British Columbia has recently imposed an expensive carbon tax on fossil fuel explorers in the province and the consensus is that a similar tax is very likely to be introduced on a federal level, too.

But look at the how oil companies are dealing with all those raised green flags in Athabasca’s oil sands region! In cooperation with Environment Canada and the Pembina Institute, which officially tracks Canada’s progress towards achieving Kyoto Protocol goals, many Big Oil names, such as Petro-Canada, Suncor, Husky Energy, Imperial Oil, and even Shell Canada, have agreed to place a partial moratorium on new exploration projects in the oil sands. If the moratorium is sanctioned by Alberta’s government, at least for the next four years, three huge caribou woodlands would remain protected.

Is this a costly but correct decision? Or, is it just a smart public relations move with limited downside for Big Oil? I’m afraid it’s the latter.

With or without the said moratorium, caribou woodlands would most likely still remain intact because the land holds very little interest to Big Oil. At least for the moment, because prices of crude oil would have to be even higher than they already are to justify the costs of digging. Basically, engineers are saying that bitumen (a hard mixture of crude oil and sand) in the protected area is both very thin and low-grade.

So, by publicly signing the moratorium, in one fell swoop Big Oil also gave up the risks of new environmental taxes, sidetracked tough regulatory environment, and avoided running up exorbitant production and labor costs. In return for getting to wear the nice green cloak, oil companies will have gained plenty of goodwill from the public, environmentalists and governments. In other words, oil companies are very likely going to have their cake and eat it, too.