Oil Sands Watch | Pembina Institute


Oil sands reps would be wise to heed advice

A chorus of influential insiders is starting to sing the same tune: the oil sands industry must improve and move beyond PR. Indeed, I was struck by advice William Smullen, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, gave Monday at Calgary's Petroleum Club. Based on his experience witnessing the reputation of the U.S. take a nose-dive during the Bush administration, Smullen advised the oil sands industry and government to be more open with and responsive to the public.

Good advice, considering the reputational hit the oil sands and as a result, Alberta and Canada, have taken because of the environmental impacts associated with oil sands development. Both industry and government are feeling that hit.

Clive Mather, ex-Shell Canada CEO, admitted "we have not done a good job in the oil sands, either in environmental performance or in communication. And we've got a big problem." Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice also sounded the alarms recently, predicting Canada "will be cast as a poster child for environmentally unsound resource development" if something isn't done to improve the image of the oil sands.

And so on Monday, Smullen took the opportunity to pass on a little advice on how to handle this growing situation. Drawing from his experience guarding the reputation of some of America's most powerful bureaucrats, Smullen spoke about the need to listen to the concerns of stakeholders, learn and adapt to changing environments, and lead into the future with respect, consistency and integrity. 

It's an approach that hasn't been taken by the Government of Alberta and some oil sands companies. A growing number of Albertans, including many Aboriginal communities and environmental groups are feeling increasingly alienated by oil sands development. Meanwhile, many industry officials I speak with feel rather ill-served by the province. They tell me the Alberta government is not reacting quickly enough to the challenges facing the oil sands industry. Further, they say the government isn't providing industry with the regulatory certainty and price signals they need to make reasoned and informed decisions.

"Just talking about it [oil sands] isn't going to move the needle," Smullen reminded the audience. Talk needs to be backed up by honest facts he said, because "if you don't tell the truth about yourself, somebody else will." 

Much of my work at Pembina is crunching numbers, creating reports and starting conversations that arguably should instead be initiated the Government of Alberta. It would be interesting to see how many government reports on the oil sands are read compared to Pembina reports! Our recent in situ report card has already been downloaded by approximately 25,000 readers and provides the first-ever analysis of the impacts of in situ oil sands development.

Smullen closed his talk by inviting industry and government to be a participant in the debate and not just a spectator. He wants to see them forming policies and practices based on commonly held values. By appealing to a larger vision that still incorporates economic prosperity, such as being the catalyst to help transition Canada into a clean energy economy, the oil sands industry has the potential to improve their standing at home and internationally. 

Chris Lemphers — Apr 02, 2010 - 04:45 PM MT

i agree PR will only go so far until the reality of using dirty oil kicks is confronted.

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