The Possibility for Success: An Alternative Perspective on the oil sands

by jensept on October 30, 2015 - 3:29am

An article published by the Ottawa citizen on September 20th considers the recent water use reductions by the Canadian Oil sands producers1. Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) expressly claimed from 2012 to 2014 there was a 30% reduction in water used to produce a barrel of crude oil. Chief executive Dan Wicklum explained the statistics at a conference in Calgary last week, airing on the side of caution that the results are promising but water use often fluctuates throughout the years. He notes regardless of water use decline, emissions are still increasing due to overall increases in production. 

 Mr. Wicklum attributes the success to COSIA, which has allowed 814 distinct innovative technologies to be shared between members. Brian Ferguson a CEO of Cenovus (oil sands producer), states environmental stewardship and economic gains go hand in hand; going on to say COSIA provides the companies of the oil sands with an opportunity for economic and environmental progress. 

The statement made by Mr. Ferguson is one that certainly piqued my interest as it mimics that of Justin Trudeau, who has declared there is no way to separate between the economy and the environment anymore2.  This represents evolution from the previous perspective observed in videos such as ‘Shattered Ground’ or ‘To the Last Drop’, which conveyed economic prosperity over environmental consideration. The new perspective lends support to the idea that the government is finally starting to understand the complexity of climate change and that acceptance of the interdependence of two fundamental systems (environment and economy) is a necessary step in the solution.

Consideration of the motivations behind this reduction in water usage is useful to understand where the success is derived from. COSIA, a third party composed of oil sands producers, pushes for improved environmental performance3. This is a voluntary instrument whereby industry representatives are bending to public pressure to receive positive recognition for their efforts. The use of voluntary action in collaboration with multiple other instruments seems to be amending the current state of management. Two others explored in class include: informational instruments, which are being used to shame industry that are failing to uphold their environmental commitments (Annual emissions reports), or economic instruments, that utilizes the markets to create incentive for companies (carbon tax schemes in British Columbia). The incorporation of diverse management techniques signals the newly arising coordinated actions between the involved parties and the progressive management of the oil sands.

Additional consideration of the incentives of this issue allows us to evaluate the long term sustainability. We can consider climate change as part of the issue-attention cycle- a proposed explanation for the dynamics involved in the public perception of an issue. It is characterized by a heightened increase in public perception followed by realization of costs and finished with a gross decline in interest. It is likely to suppose we are in the stage where costs are being realized and public interest should decline. Yet while there is increasing evidence of the high cost imposed by prioritizing the environment (such as the costs of COSIA on industry), it seems support is actually bolstering for climate change initiatives. It is interesting to consider the issue-attention cycle does not sufficiently account for problems as jarring as climate change.

In summation I think that article was a pleasant change in perspective on the Albertan oil industry and provided me with an opportunity to consider the changing perspective being experienced by our society and contributing to the solution of a wicked problem.  A brief analysis of incentives behind the water reduction allowed me to consider the genuine possibility for successful management, due to the incorporation of new management techniques and evidence for sustained public interest.




About the author