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“Citizen Interventions” Have Cost Canada’s Tar Sands Industry $17B, New Report Shows

Oil companies and fossil fuel investors seeking further developments in the Alberta tar sands have been dealt another setback with the publication of a report showing producers lost $17.1 billion USD between 2010-2013 due to successful public protest campaigns.

Fossil fuel companies lost $30.9 billion overall during the same period partly due to the changing North American oil market but largely because of a fierce grassroots movement against tar sands development, said the report — Material Risks: How Public Accountability Is Slowing Tar Sands Development.

A significant segment of opposition is from First Nations in Canada who are raising sovereignty claims and other environmental challenges, added the report, which was produced by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and Oil Change International (OCI).

“Tar sands producers face a new kind of risk from growing public opposition,” Tom Sanzillo, director of finance at IEEFA, and one of the lead authors on the report, said. “This opposition has achieved a permanent presence as public sentiment evolves and as the influence of organizations opposed to tar sands production continues to grow.”

Opposition to tar sands unexpected

Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, added industry officials never anticipated the level and intensity of public opposition to their massive build-out plans.

“Public opposition has caused government and its administrative agencies to take a second and third look,” Kretzmann said. “Legal and other challenges are raising new issues related to environmental protection, indigenous rights and the disruptive impact of new pipeline proposals.”

He added anti-pipeline protests are keeping carbon in the ground, and changing the bottom line for the tar sands industry. 

“Business as usual for Big Oil – particularly in the tar sands – is over,” Kretzmann said.

The report said market forces and public opposition have played a significant role in the cancellation of three major tar sands projects in 2014 alone: Shell’s Pierre River, Total’s Joslyn North, and Statoil’s Corner Project.  

“Combined, these projects would have produced 4.7 billion barrels of bitumen that would in turn have released 2.8 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere,” the 28-page report said. “This is equivalent to the emissions of building 18 new coal plants that would last 40 years each.”

Growing First Nations voices take tar sands story international

“I think it’s pretty inspiring and also uplifting to see the recognition of First Nations that have been very vocal and have articulated their staunch opposition to tar sands expansion in our traditional homelands,” Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Greenpeace Canada campaigner from the Lubicon Cree, told DeSmog.

Laboucan-Massimo and other representatives from local First Nations like Eriel Deranger from the Fort Chipewyan have been campaigning for years to bring greater awareness to the human health and environmental impacts of rapid tar sands expansion. Laboucan-Massimo said she spent a lot of energy campaigning outside of Canadian borders, speaking to parliamentarians in the U.K., across Europe, as well as to U.S. Congress and the shareholders of major companies.

“We wanted to tell the story on the outside and really put that pressure on the Canadian government to do its due diligence and be accountable to its own citizens,” she said.

“I think that’s a part of what’s been effective in this campaign of accountability, that people not only in Canada but around the world were asking what is happening in Canada? Why is Canada such a climate laggard? Why is the Canadian government not listening to the voices of their own people?”

The growing environmental movement, she said, has been better at incorporating the voices of local First Nations living on the front lines of the tar sands. The movement also now represents a much wider range of social perspectives.

“When we work in coalitions – the environmental movement, First Nations and the labour movement – there’s such a convergence of diverse voices…we’re really starting to see growing public accountability and public opposition being seen and taken seriously.”

She added the future of the tar sands under the Harper government is “tenuous” because “you can see he has a very pro-tar sands agenda,” she said. But, she added, even five or 10 years ago very few Canadians knew what the tar sands were and had little awareness of the switch from conventional to unconventional, extreme forms of energy.

“Now people are quite aware that that’s what been happening and there has been a public dialogue created on that and there has been more pressure on the government to really address the environmental concerns, the health issues and indigenous rights violations. I feel like people really are a lot more aware of these issues now than in the past.”

Keystone XL delay shows tar sands "weakness"

The report says the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is one of the most talked about North American energy and political issues of the era.

“Once thought inevitable, the project and Canada’s plan to expand tar sands production have been confronted by an accumulation of economic and political risks creating a veritable ‘carbon blockade.’”

Project delays are taking a financial and political toll on proposed tar sands projects, the report said.

“The delays and cancellations have exposed the fact that tar sands investments, once thought to be highly lucrative, are showing signs of financial weakness. With growing public awareness and market hesitancy, expansion of tar sands production in Canada will remain contested terrain for the foreseeable future.”  

The report also noted that the tar sands sector faces a growing constellation of risks as project economics become pressured by low oil prices and shrinking revenues, rising costs, smaller profit margins, tougher capital markets, transport constraints, environmental challenges and protectionist legislation.

Nine of 10 leading tar sands producers in Canada have underperformed the stock market in the last five years, it said, adding industry experts have recently downgraded their outlook for future tar sands production.

“Tar sands pipeline campaigns are a recent example of how public advocacy efforts can alter capital investment decision making,” the report said.

“The Keystone XL campaign has managed thus far to delay a final governmental decision on the project while raising public awareness about the environmental costs of tar sands development.”

“These citizen interventions have resulted in increased diligence by government agencies with public health and environmental mandates, impaired the project development process of the capital markets and mobilized a permanent, political constituency in support of alternatives to tar sands expansion.”

The report noted there was an expectation that the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline would receive necessary approvals quickly when it was originally proposed in 2008 and be up and running by late 2011.

“Time and events changed this storyline,” the report added. “By 2011 Russ Girling, the CEO of TransCanada, said ‘There is no way we could have ever predicted that we would become the lightning rod for a debate around fossil fuels and the development of the Canadian oil sands.’”

According to a report in the Guardian, Canada has staked its energy future on a massive expansion of tar sands, which hold the world’s third largest reserve of crude after Saudia Arabia and Venezuela.

“But the huge amounts of water and solvents needed to extract oil from bitumen dramatically boost greenhouse gas output and, on latest production forecasts, will increase Canada’s CO2 emissions by 56 megatonnes by 2020,” the Guardian said.

Image Credit: People's Climate March by Zack Embree

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