Friday, May 2, 2008

If It Quacks Like A Duck...

Nation, I've returned from my exile to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and found myself incredibly disturbed not only by a recent turn of events, but also by the small-l liberal response to it.

Frequent readers of this blog (are there any other kinds?) will know that I self-identify as a "red tory" - I favour fiscal conservatism, whilst being to the left socially. A more appropriate label, however, might be "christmas tree tory" - a fiscal conservative who is red on social issues and whose primary value is green. The environment is my biggest single issue - and while having never voted Green in my life (a topic for another post, coming very soon), I am a big believer in the overwhelming need for our leaders and citizens to embrace the issue of sustainability. As in, right now.

Imagine my dismay, then, upon my return to read that 500 ducks had died after landing in a Syncrude tailing pond filled with toxic waste.

Absolutely inexcusable.

The province requires that sound deterrents be used to keep fowl away from ponds such as this one - and with great success. In this particular case, the devices had not yet been deployed, and the province is already taking steps to lay charges against Syncrude which may result in a fine of up to $1 Million.

That's $2000 per duck. You don't even pay that for duck in Paris.

Now, as I said above - this is absolutely inexcusable. I will grant that this is the first time in the 30 years of oilsands development that something like this has happened. Further, I'll admit that freak accidents sometimes occur despite the best safety precautions being taken. But that isn't what happened here... the best safety precautions were NOT taken, and as a result 500 ducks landed in a pool of toxic waste, and (quite predictably) died.

Nearly as disturbing, though, has been the reaction of the political left.

You could see the smirks from miles away... instead of offering up workable solutions on how to avoid catastrophes like this in the future, the capital-L Liberals, their friends in the blogosphere and their "Big Green" lackeys have insisted on showing us pictures of dead ducks (the ducks died, we get it) and saying the only way to stop this from happening is to stop oilsands development completely, and vote Liberal.

Neither of those is going to happen, and they know it, so they lock in their expressions of smug moral superiority and fire back with a "then you're getting what you deserve". You almost get the impression they want you to believe that Ed Stelmach and Mel Knight went on a bender one night, and snuck around poisoning the ponds themselves.

"There is no correct way of doing things or seeing this issue but OUR way. Suggestions to the contrary are obviously being made by intellectually stunted, inferior people." Sounds vaguely like it belongs in the late 30's, wouldn't you say?

Also sticking in my craw about this is the suggestion, mainly in the blogosphere, that the Tories have spent $25 Million to "re-brand" the projects as "Oilsands". The argument I'm reading is that they're supposed to be called "Tarsands".

Guys, with ALL due respect - remove your heads from your rectums.

The only re-branding going on here is your continued insistence, against all evidence to the contrary, that these projects have EVER been popularly called the "Tarsands" by anyone with any public credibility prior to very recently, when you all decided that sounded dirtier, and more likely to cause public outrage. For 30 years, the undisputed public "brand" for the areas being developed today has been "The Oilsands". The first time I ever heard the projects referred to as "Tarsands" by someone I considered credible was on a CityTV debate between 2 bloggers in Edmonton during the recent provincial election - and the blogger who used the term was quite clearly doing his damnedest to "re-brand" the projects as "tarsands" for his own political reasons.

I don't want to lose sight of the main issue, here... Syncrude screwed up, and had a major impact on the environment. But this wasn't due to a LACK of government rules, it was due to their CONTRAVENING of government rules. If the Liberals, or the liberal blogosphere, has practical suggestions on what to do to avoid this in the future, then by all means fire away. But "close the tarsands" and "vote Liberal" are NOT practical solutions (because they're NOT going to happen at this stage), and every time you make them, you just further cement the public perception of you as not credible. Making good suggestions for the public good NOW rather than holding them close to your vest for the next 4 years so you can "debut" them at election time at least makes the "vote Liberal" more likely.

The oilsands are a dirty, dirty business. There's no getting around that. There are many, many tailing ponds just like the one in question, full of toxins and poisons that will kill animals, plants, and people if they're not properly contained. If it were MY call, I'd be working on alternative energy sources right NOW - because the higher petro-energy costs go up, the more likely we are to wake up tomorrow and find that Ford or Honda has mass released a fully electrical car, because nobody can afford to buy gasoline. When we finally reach that tipping point, and the value of the oil in those oilsands bottoms out, if we as a province don't have something else, ready to pick up the multi-BILLION dollar slack in terms of royalty revenue, residual economic impact and job losses, we are going to be SCREWED.

That's the whole point of sustainability - relying so totally on one resource, which poisons our environment, for our economic well-being puts us at the mercy of our own largess and the world market for that resource. Once the oil runs out - or the demand for it dries up - we'll wake up to find ourselves broke, unemployed, and living in a poisoned environment. That's right - we'll be Toronto.
We have GOT to diversify our economy, and if we decide we want to be an energy powerhouse for the 21st century like we were for the last half of the 20th, then we'd better start working on alternative sources for that energy - because in the year 2105, when this province celebrates its bicentennial, crude oil is going to be as relevant as music recorded on wax cylinders is today.

So liberals, environmentalists: I'm with you, without reservation, on these points: This sucks, it should never have happened, and we have to do something.

I'm open to CONSTRUCTIVE suggestions.

Blaming Stelmach for Syncrude's failure to follow the rules? NOT constructive.


Allie Wojtaszek said...

I don't think the liberal bloggers have anything constructive to offer.

Now that I have some time to sit around and read whats going on in the blogosphere I can tell you, wholeheartedly and without reservation, that I am saddened at the level of pure crap on some of those blogs. Saddened because there used to be a time when those bloggers actually wrote about their opinions in a well presented manner, did some research and offered some balance.

This balance I thought was very important, not just to me but to the public discourse. I am not afraid of far left or far right opinions, I like to read everything and come to a conclusion on my own after considering all arguments. If I wanted a certain parties rhetoric forced down my throat, I'd go to that parties website and read their news releases and policy points. But this seems to be what I read these days on certain blogs. What happened to the actual ideas of these bloggers?

I don't need to be hit over the head with anti-Stelmach attacks, especially where they don't belong. I am outraged at what has happened with these ducks - and obviously countless other infractions that have yet to come to light - and I am upset about the environmental record of the companies using the oilsands.

I'd like to be able to explore and express my outrage without seeing people, parties and "public interest groups" use this tragedy for their own purposes and hijack it for their own selfish messaging.

How many more people would speak out against this and demand the government take a more serious approach if we didn't feel that to do so would mean we had to align ourselves with a government hating environmentally over the top whacko agenda?

daveberta said...

The first time I ever heard the projects referred to as "Tarsands" by someone I considered credible was on a CityTV debate between 2 bloggers in Edmonton during the recent provincial election - and the blogger who used the term was quite clearly doing his damnedest to "re-brand" the projects as "tarsands" for his own political reasons.

And that was me. Check out Larry Pratt's "The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil" from 1978. He's a bit of a lefty, but it gives a good overview of the history of the tarsands from the early Socred days to Lougheed's Syncrude deal in the early 1970s.

In all honestly, the clamouring around the photos is useless. It's clear that the Government did not try to cover this up (as witnessed by Stelmach and Renner's media conference last week).

I take issue with the game that Stelmach is playing with environmental groups, instead of actually engaging the issue of what a gross task cleaning up the tailing ponds presents, the Tories seem to be more interested in rebranding to change the tarsands international image.

Do I understand why they want to do this? Absolutely. In a time of continental economic insecurity, Alberta can play a central role in providing some economic stability.

This said, the future environmental costs of how the tarsands are currently extracted are too high for my liking.

Enlightened Savage said...

Dave: On your last point, I am in total agreement - the future environmental costs of how the oilsands are currently extracted ARE too high...

So, let's get all this blogging brainpower together, and figure out some workable solutions and alternatives, instead of collectively crying about the situation but offering no legitimate solutions!

You're the Canadian Blogosphere's #1 Citizen... get us mobilized!

Anonymous said...

While I don't think that the Stelmach government can be fully blamed for this incident (after all Syncrude violated conditions of their lease) I don't think they are entirely blameless. If Albertans want to see oil companies shifting towards a more sustainable means of developing the tar sands, we should start by holding their feet to the fire and make sure they live up to their current environmental obligations (let alone harsher ones, like contemporaneous reclamation). Renner admitted earlier this week that currently, the Alberta government relies on oil company self-reporting and self-policing-- a very hands off approach. For example, you mention in the beginning of this post that this is the first of such incidents in 30 years of tar sands development. But do we really know that? If it wasn't for serendipity and the sense of responsibility held by an anonymous tipster we probably wouldn't have known about this incident either.
As such, we can hold our government responsible for giving Syncrude the impression that they could get away with not putting out sound deterrents during heightened migration season, even if the weather made this task more difficult. Why not have a team of enforcement officers checking these types of environmental precautions every year? Why not have surprise inspections at close intervals? A $1 000 000 fine is a drop in the bucket for these companies, if we want to deter them from irresponsible behaviour they need to feel that the risk of being caught by the government is high and to know that severe sanctions (such as suspension or revocation of their license to operate) are entirely possible.

Anonymous said...

For starters this incident highlights the need to get action going on reclamation of the toxic ponds...

Yes charges are needed, but frankly they do not solve anything, they simply demonstrate public sector resolve... well past time for that no doubt.

Industry action needed.
If that action is research, 'cause the big oil guys don't really know what to do to successfully reclaim the sludge ponds... or so I hear said... then where are the $$$ drivers to get the oil guys thinking?

In my view they should have $$$ tied up each and every year this problem is NOT solved. Nothing like a pile of money that continues to pile up and is sitting around untouchable to get the creative juices of market players going, especially if it is from THEIR pocket.

If that does not get the brain cells engaged for industry to take reclamation action well at least it will ensure that when they leave the province we do not have an unfunded liability.

There are more foundational issues that need addressing on the environmental front... but from my perspective....
...very little point in talking if no one is listening... and to date the PCs are having a difficult time getting the ears around the new take on green and the liberals and 'others' are fairly positional still too.

Get over it!

So if the Duck debacale means that people are starting to request answers not just retoric and to listen Great!!!

There are huge ranges of actions that support business and markets... as well as work to address the essential issues ...enough and varied enough to make all parties happy. [if they are solutions based and not just posturing]

In my view natural systems are the essential elements underlying all economies and markets...

Healthy natural systems are based on resilency and abundance (in constantly changing dynamic equalibrium) to contrast most human systems, and specifically markets, are based on scarcity and require through-put (information/ process/ cash flow).

What we need to do is the ensure that enough natural function resilency and critical aspects of natural systems are kept around in a healthy form so that they can at some time in the future regenerate abundance. [this ensures possibilities for a future economic base post oil]

While that is happening we need to address our human management systems in all regards to find ways that human created systems can interact with natural systems with a resulting healthy outccome for both....

Sure this is a huge problem that requires a great number of thinkers to work to find solutions... but first we need to get busy having the discussion.

To recap:

1.Collect the fees from O&G industry in a reclamation fund large enough and long enough so they have a reason to get a pragmatic and workable solution going on.

INDUSTRY ACTION gov't condition for continuing business.

2.Undertake a range of public and private sector actions to ensure that our natural systems function and resilency is healthy enough to rebound.

ACTIONS from ALL SECTORS not just discussions.

3.Work to find 'green financcials' or natural system based economic metrics... to bring a more harmonous contact between natural and man made systems with an outcome of a healthy world for all species.


Our Future economic well being depends upon it.

Thanks for the chance to let off a rant.


Anonymous said...

ES, I don't blame Stelmach or the government for this particular incident. I think, however, that it is provided a vivid illustration of how Alberta has gone wrong on the environmental front.

Clearly, as you say, the oilsands/tarsands (I don't care which we use) development is having a huge environmental impact, and has the potential to be catastrophic if things went seriously wrong (like a dike failure releasing one of the tailing ponds into the Athabasca River). Albertans have had a vague sense of this for some time, and that sense has been growing, in part due the the efforts of environmental groups, some very mainstream. That vague concern, however, has been offset by an equally vague idea that the Alberta government is on top of the situation and providing good regulation and oversight.

So along come the ducks. Syncrude screws up its mitigation measures and its obligation to report. There are lots of steps to criticize. How does the government come out? Sniping at environmental organizations, wildly exaggerating the hazards of wind energy, stopping journalists from getting access to pictures, and generally sounding like an apologist for oilsands development. In one week they have completely undermined the perception of their role as careful overseers of the development.

I think what you are seeing is that vague concern about the tarsands being given a "crystalizing event" (thanks to Ken Chapman for the phrase) at the same time the provincial government has provided its own crystalizing events to precipitate a loss of confidence in it's ability to govern the oilsands, or perhaps the whole resource and environment file.

In short, it's not about the ducks. It's about people looking for environmental leadership and seeing their government bereft of ideas or commitment.

Enlightened Savage said...

greengirl: Points well made.

Welcome to the E.S. Nation! :)

Anonymous said...

Gasify the oil/tar sands waste and use it to produce energy. The process can be designed to be emissions free (at least to California clean air standards) and be designed to collect C02 for sequesterization or for pumping to shallower depths to maintain the pressure in the zones above the bitumen (best for SAGD).

Anonymous said...

This is a very strong post ES.

It's easy to say $1 million isn't very much, unless you have a million to lose.

Renner and Stelmach started their reaction off well, but then the message changed and I really don't see why. Is there public sympathy to Syndcrude? Of course not, they screwed up and deserve to be punished, it's how Stelmach started the week off. Farmers know about this stuff, if you cause damage on your farm, you take responsibility.

But then yesterday? Who ever wrote the briefing talking about the number of birds killed in the US by wind turbines needs to be fired. Harper must have looked over at him and thought "who is this guy?"

If the Tories (gov of AB) reached out to the NGOs and academics, would they be receptive to helping? Who has ideas to contribute besides raising awareness? Which I think has been fully raised as Graham Thompson mentions.

daveberta said...

"So, let's get all this blogging brainpower together, and figure out some workable solutions and alternatives, instead of collectively crying about the situation but offering no legitimate solutions!"


Anonymous said...

Okay. Here is a concrete suggestion, ES and Dave. This spring a majority of the members of the Cumulative Effects Management Association (CEMA), the government's own multi-stakeholder advisory committee on managing the environmental impacts of the tarsands, recommended that two large pieces of boreal forest be withdrawn from further mineral leasing, so that they might be considered for protected area status. Several oil producers signed onto this request, and the areas have been verified as appropriate for this by solid science. The areas would help to secure wildlife habitat and natural watershed functions in areas adjacent to the mineable oilsands. So we have good science, broad (but not unananimous) stakeholder consensus, and a solid, immediate (and visible/publicizable) environmental gain, all packaged and ready to go. This should be a no-brainer, and be implimentable with little cost.

Enlightened Savage said...

OAV: LOVE it. Link?


- E.S.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of companies working on methods to reclaim/remediate the tailing ponds. I don't believe you can "gasify" it. The majority of the volume is water, with trace hydrocarbons and other minerals, including some naturally-occuring heavy metals.

One of the biggest problems is that the tailings are individually very tiny "bits" (for lack of a better word). Just like silt, which takes a long time to settle. My understanding is that tailings are even finer, and so take a lot longer to settle.

Some research is being done to accelerate the settling of the tailings. You want to precipitate out some of the material, so it can be collected. The hydrocarbons should also be able to be collected (I am not sure the % amount, but even trace amounts will be cost-effective given the high price of oil at some point).

As an aside, as someone who has followed this blog for some time, this running commentary by readers is some of the best I have seen. Hope it continues.

Anonymous said...

The other point I would make is that I believe the tailing ponds are the result of surface mining procedures only. Surface mining is the original method for recovering oil from the sands.

SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) involves heating the sand underground with steam to reduce the viscosity and allow the bitumen to flow to a wellhead. Much different system. SAGD is not the be all and end all, however. It requires a significant amount of energy to create the steam, energy currently provided by natural gas. And it can only be used for hydrocarbon reservoirs of a certain depth (i.e. too close to the surface and the steam will simply escape - not a good thing).

Most of the new projects being worked on are SAGD.

kenchapman said...

Great post ES and engaging commentary everyone - THANKS!

I sense that Albertans want a lot more from their government - who are our proxies but as citizens/owners/voters, we have the ultimate responsibility.

We also expect more from the industry who as lessees are our tenants after all. Again citizens/owners/voters Albertans have to get into this and get informed and involved if change is going to happen.

The Alberta newspapers are also doing a fine job covering the story as news but also as to deeper implications for Alberta.

This is not a partisan is a foundational citizenship issue for Albertans. And it is complex and intricate but that is no reason not to wake up to what is happening. Albertan need to pay attention, stay alert and be active on the issues about responsible and sustainable oil sands development. It is a very good thing if done properly.

If we don't stay involved and go merely back to sleep, as is often the case, the 24 hour news cycle inevitably moves on. Then there are the day to day demands of our busy lives. All that tends to overtake our time and consciousness again. If that is the default position for Albertans on these issues - then nothing of substance will change.

Keep blogging on this ES. I value your opinions. I just wish we still had Blake Robert's take on this too. But his insight will have to be provided in ways other than his blog I guess.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking Post.I do agree with you the GOA cannot be blamed 100% but I believe the attitudes of the Big Players in Industry is profit over everything else.They just don't take the GOA seriously and there is no fear of reprocussions.If the GOA were more forceful in their expectations,the necessary preventative measures would have been put in place well in advance.They do billion dollar expansions yet a snowstorm immobilizes them?There is such a concentration on how to get the oil out of the ground as quickly and as cheaply as possible,Industry has become obsessed by it.

Anonymous said...

Some great ideas all around... we need to keep up the dialog and the expectations for ACTIONS...

Environmental complexity is the world we live in and it is only going to get more so. So continued dialog; holding ALL players accountable; and a focus on ACTION(s) is needed.

The idea of the cummulative affects agreement to set aside habitat from mining is a VERY OLD idea, BUT it is an essential step and, a good start on PART of what needs doing to protect some of the components for env. resilency. Just as less water use, less energy use and improved reclamation are essential.

So what if Industry does not FEAR gov't????

This is not really a healthy way to operate in any case. Gov't and Industry need to cooperate and work together on complex areas like this.... but they do not need to be complicit or sucky... they need to be objective and each of them mindful of their primary responsibilities... GOA =public interest, protecting the environment; O&G= shareholders+ consumers and staying in business ....

In some circumstances the steps needed to be taken are clear, the interests and the results are predictable... these are usually the issues that get dealt with 'cause the downside/ upside risks are knowable... that is part of why the duck story is so sad... it was EASY and CLEAR...

ALL steps and solutions for a viable enironmentally healthy future are NOT clear. ... the relationships and causal links are at times blurry...or at the least complicated...and interdisciplinary

But one of many ideas to move forward... how about borrowing from health/ medical sector ????... they have shown it is possible to make emense progress both pragmatically and cross disciplinary teams...

[the sector still has lots of policy issues, but they have made progress on solutions for many disease related treatments ... and are starting to move into the links between healthy environments and population health..] they call this approach an Evidence Based Decision Making process...which is based on the best available knowledge... [research here is highly funded and evidence is always emerging.]

What industry should FEAR is the loss of their social contract to operate... and that contract boys and girls is with US. [ in addition to the 'deal' they negotiate with the owners of the resources,= 'the people of alberta']

Many years ago there was a massive financial scandal (yes a different financial mess) in the dynasty to the south of us...called the Solomon Brothers scandal... and Warren Buffet an outspoken mid-westerner was brought into Solomon Brothers to move them through their mess. As part of the 'moving toward solution' he had to testify in front of US Senate hearings... that venue (in 1990's) he said, (I paraphrase)"the spirit of compliance is more important than the words of compliance."

(what I mean by O&G need to do more than keeping to the rules... they are only a start)

..."After they first obey all rules, do they want what they are doing to be reported on the front page of the paper?" level of transparency...
this is a level of scrutiny that is assumed in the social contract to do business,especially one that severly effects the natural environment, in my view...

further Buffett, as CEO, maintained: "Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding; lose a shred of credibility for the firm and I will be ruthless."

Credibility is on the Line
So "Sorry" didn't do it Syncrude + GOA ... you did!

Let's be positive and move forward... but keep engaged.

All parties need to work on rebuilding my trust and renewing the social capital invested in staying in the O&G business in northern Alberta.

A news cycle doesn't do it for me.


Anonymous said...

I had a nice post all written up about SAGD's energy requirements, full-cycle energy equation, and its comparison to corn- and wheat-based ethanol "snake oil" accounting. But then one of my kids pulled the plug on my computer... seriously.

Here is a shorter, less well articulted piece.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, SAGD is a better method than mining from a land disturbance perspective, but requires a significant amount of energy to create the steam. One can argue whether or not this is the best use of natural gas from a resource conservation perspective (nuclear?), but it is not a "waste" of energy. More energy is created (well, liberated) from a SAGD oil recovery project than is used up by burning the nat gas.

It is a very different case with ethanol, for which corn or wheat based ethanol sees a marginal - if any - increase in net energy created. The ethanol industry only exists out of subsidies. Oilsands does not. You can argue whether or not the public is extracting enough value out of the resource in the form of taxes and royalties, land bonuses, etc., but it is a societal wealth creator. Ethanol, except for maybe sugarcane-created ethanol out of Brazil, is not.