Investor group says oil sands industry must cut environmental risks
An international group of ethical funds with investments in Alberta’s oil sands is concerned the industry’s environmental performance could be creating financial risk.
“We recognize the economic significance of the resource,” the group says in a statement to be released Monday.
“But (we) are concerned that the current approach to development, particularly the management of the environmental and social impacts, threatens the long-term viability of the oil sands as an investment.”
The statement is signed by 49 funds.
Some are controlled by labour and church groups, such as the United Church of Canada and the Canadian Labour Congress. There are also public-sector pension funds from both sides of the border and private funds from Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Together, they control about $2-trillion, some of which is invested in companies active in the oil sands. Their statement was co-ordinated and released by the Boston-based group Ceres, which works to advance environmental causes through the financial sector.
The funds say the oil sands industry is not reducing its greenhouse gas emissions or its water use fast enough. They’re concerned about the lack of information on land reclamation liabilities and worry about lawsuits from aboriginal groups.
“We’re certainly not claiming that the industry is ignoring these issues,” said Andrew Logan of Ceres. “What we’re saying is that we need to dramatically speed up the pace of innovation.”
Ceres considers greenhouse gas emissions a risk because the industry’s rosy forecasts of U.S. export growth don’t account for the potential impact of low-carbon fuel standards, now under consideration or implemented in 14 U.S. states.
Ceres estimated in 2010 that if such regulations eventually cover half of the U.S. market, the export potential for oil sands crude would be reduced by 25 per cent. If such regulations were implemented federally, markets for the oil sands fuel could shrink by a third.
“Most companies don’t really have targets around reducing their greenhouse gas emissions or their water use,” Mr. Logan said. “What we’re looking for is specifics.”
Dan Wicklum of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance said his recently formed group of 12 major oil sands producers is starting to do just that.
“Companies certainly want to push themselves,” he said. “We’re just developing the process that we would use to engage and set our goals ... The companies have committed to set a goal.”
The funds also say industry hasn’t released enough information about how much it will cost to clean up after itself.
“Disclosure by oil sands companies of reclamation costs has been poor,” says the statement.
Alberta’s auditor general has pointed out the amount of money salted away for reclamation is inadequate and the statement says unaccounted reclamation liabilities could reach $33-billion by 2025 — liabilities that could fall to investors.
Janet Annesley of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers denied investors are at risk.
“Reclamation plans are in place before any project operations may commence and liabilities are fully funded by oil sands mine operators at all times through cash, assets or a combination of both,” she wrote in an email.
The statement adds legal threats from aboriginal groups, such as the constitutional challenge recently filed against Shell’s proposed Jackpine mine expansion, have been growing.
“The risk of a court ruling in their favour is increasing and could lead to the suspension of an oil sands project,” it says.
Ms. Annesley also downplayed that risk.
“Oil sands development does not go ahead without direct and meaningful Aboriginal consultation,” she wrote.
“Oil sands operators will continue to work with governments and Aboriginal groups to clarify the consultation and accommodation process for the benefit of all parties over the longer term.”
Mr. Wicklum said his group has already been in contact with Ceres about its concerns.
“When I take a look at what they’re asking for, it’s really exactly what the industry wants —meaningful engagement with stakeholders,” he said. “We’ve committed to set regional environmental performance goals, to listen and to respond and accelerate the pace of environmental performance improvement.”
The fact that Mr. Wicklum’s group exists at all is a step forward, said Mr. Logan.
“The problems in the oil sands are really beyond the ability of any one company to solve,” he said. “The formation of COSIA does suggest to me there’s a real appetite to put real resources into these problems in a way that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.