Bob McKeon

October 18, 2010

The public debates around the Athabasca oilsands appear to be entering a new phase. We see new developments in the media almost every day.

Until recently, provincial government and industry leaders insisted that the oilsands plants had no measurable pollution effect on the Athabasca River despite the claims made by environmentalists and independent scientists. When doctors spoke of serious damage to human health in downstream aboriginal communities, government officials bullied them into silence.

There is a growing public consensus supporting Bishop Luc Bouchard's judgment that expanding oilsands production using current corporate environmental practices "constitutes a serious moral problem."

In recent weeks, both the provincial and federal governments have shifted direction and announced the creation of new independent scientific panels to investigate the issue of river pollution. Provincial health authorities have initiated a new round of human health studies.


Almost daily, newspapers are carrying stories of promises of new technologies that may have the potential to start reclaiming toxic tailing ponds, restoring open pit mine sites, limiting the amount of fresh water used to process the oilsands, and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

The promise of future improvements in industry environmental practices in the oilsands raises important ethical questions. After a virtual moratorium in new oilsands projects during the economic recession, there have been many announcements about expanding existing plants and constructing new mines, processing plants and pipelines.

Now that the damage associated with existing industrial practices is being more widely acknowledged and scientifically documented, the question arises about how soon government will implement more demanding environmental regulations to govern these new projects.

The principle of an intergenerational ethic requires that the present generation that receives short-term profits and a needed fuel resource do all in its power to reduce the long-term burdens and costs being passed on to future generations.

The present blitz of advertising being conducted by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers defends the oilsands industry as a single entity. One could come to the mistaken conclusion that all the companies in the oilsands operate to a single industrial standard.

Last year, Northwest and Ethical Investments published a risk assessment report, Lines in the Sands, evaluating the performance of major corporations operating in the Athabasca oilsands.

This can be read as a type of corporate ethical audit. The report contains a report card of companies with better and poorer environmental practices, and companies willing and unwilling to be transparent through public disclosure of their current corporate environmental practices.


The immense scale of the oilsands resource and the potential wealth associated with its exploitation is well known. In his recent visit to Alberta, the film director James Cameron got it right when he said that the oilsands could be either a "curse" or a great "gift" depending on how this natural resource is managed.

Last year after their visit to the Alberta oilsands, the KAIROS delegation of 10 leaders from Canadian Church leaders called for a new approach to Canada's tarsands which includes "positive directions that will protect jobs, people and the earth."

So what might be some modest starting points?

The government takes seriously its responsibility to support the common good through enhanced, credible monitoring of air, water and land pollution and significantly increased corporate environmental standards.

The present government policy of intensity standards associated with each project is changed to a total cumulative pollution cap for the entire oilsands region.

The best practices of the best corporations become the norm for the entire industry.

All companies become transparent and accountable by providing full public disclosure on the corporate environmental practices.

A long-term sustainable energy strategy is developed that includes all stakeholders so that the first steps can be taken quickly towards the inevitable necessary transition from a dependence on fossil fuel to a sustainable renewable energy future.

Is this realistic? The jury is out. The recent common agreement between Canadian forestry companies and environmental groups provides some hope for movement towards improved corporate standards.

The continuing industry resistance to House of Commons Bill 300, a bill to push for best practices among Canadian mining companies operating internationally, shows that resource corporations are often unwilling to make a public commitment "to walk their PR talk." Albertans need to speak a clear voice that this is the time to raise the bar for improved environmental standards in the oilsands.

(Bob McKeon: