Alberta steps up battle to shed 'dirty oil' image

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Dan Wicklum, chief executive of COSIA, speaks at a news conference in Calgary, March 1, 2012. Two more companies have joined a COSIA alliance to work together on a variety of issues. (STRINGER/CANADA/REUTERS)

Oil companies are anteing up valuable patents in a new consortium that aims to find common solutions to environmental problems, as Alberta steps up its battle to shed the “dirty oil” image tied to the oil sands.

The industry is touting its latest initiative, the Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), in which 12 producers have committed to work together on issues such as land, water and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

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Two more companies, Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. , are ready to join the alliance, the group's chief executive, Dan Wicklum, told a conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.

Premier Alison Redford has signalled her determination to improve Alberta's reputation by vowing to lead the province's delegation to June summit in Rio de Janeiro that will assess global progress in environmental issues.

However, she is now hedging on that pledge. “She wants to go but we're going back into [legislative]session in a couple weeks and there may be scheduling issues,” her communications director, Jay O'Neill, said Wednesday. He said the delegation may be led by the environment minister. Ms. Redford is expected to unveil her cabinet next week.

Mr. O'Neill said Alberta recognizes that it has to work with Ottawa and industry to improve the environmental performance of the oil sands, while addressing the widespread impression that the province is a regulatory backwater.

“Alberta, in the past, on the international stage has been seen in a more negative light,” he said. “I think she recognizes that Alberta has a different view of itself and others need to understand what is going on here and she wants to lead that charge.”

Mr. Wicklum, a former senior official at Environment Canada, said COSIA will soon be setting goals for environmental improvement in the oil sands, and producing an annual assessment of progress.

Companies are already sharing technology in areas such as tailings reclamation and improved reforestation, he said. “They are putting their innovation on the table, putting them patents on the tables and giving them away to other companies.”

Sharing valuable intellectual property comes at a cost to companies and their shareholders, Mr. Wicklum said, but they will gain by having access to innovative approaches and new technology.

Ms. Redford has also promised $150-million annually in provincial financing, starting when Alberta's deficit is eliminated in 2014, for environmentally related research in the oil sands sector.

Critics worry that Alberta and industry are more interested in waging a public relations battle than making serious strides to reduce the impact of oil and gas development. At the Ottawa conference on the Rio summit, Carleton University political scientist James Meadowcroft asked why the industry didn't move 10 years ago on a common strategy to reduce pollution and emissions from the oil sands.

He said it took a U.S. backlash against pipelines and efforts in California and Europe to target oil sands-based fuels to persuade government and industry to act. “I believe the survival of the oil sands depends on things like COSIA,” he said. “Right now, the brand is not good – it's just seen as dirty oil.”

Michael Cleland, a consultant with Calgary-based Canada West Foundation, warned that industry critics will be watching closely to ensure the COSIA effort yields real results.

“We need less talk and more action,” he said.

With files from Josh Wingrove

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