Canada's biggest oil sands producers are in discussions with some leading environmental groups in an effort to parlay the companies' support for Alberta's climate policy into reduced opposition to the industry and its proposed pipelines.
Executives of four companies – Suncor Energy Inc., Cenovus Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and Royal Dutch Shell PLC – have held meetings with prominent environmentalists with whom they shared a stage when Premier Rachel Notley unveiled her climate plan last fall.
Ms. Notley met with the federal Liberal cabinet at its retreat in Kananaskis, Alta., this week to press for approval for pipelines that would get Alberta crude to new markets by way of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supports the industry's goal of reaching new markets, but reiterated on Tuesday that it must be done sustainably, and with the support of First Nations and communities along the route.
Mr. Trudeau restated his opposition to Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project, saying the Great Bear Rainforest in northern B.C. should not be traversed by a heavy-oil pipeline.
Political and industry sources say the Liberals are eager to approve at least one pipeline, but it remains unclear how much political capital they would expend to override objections outside Alberta. Liberal officials have sent a message to environmentalists that the NDP Premier needs approval for pipelines to secure support for climate action in her province and to boost her political fortunes against the conservative Wildrose Party opposition.
Ms. Notley and Mr. Trudeau have argued that aggressive climate action would help win public support for the industry. Environmental organizations are now more divided than they were when they could rally against the former Conservative government's inaction on climate regulations. Several organizations continue to campaign against pipelines, over both climate concerns and the potential impact of oil spills and tanker traffic.
Suncor has been meeting with environmentalists since 2014 looking for a way to break out of the polarized debate, and sees some common ground forming around the need for climate action. "We're very pleased with where we are right now," Arlene Strom, Suncor's vice-president for sustainability, said on Tuesday. "We are in this for the long term. We want climate policy that helps us be carbon competitive and cost competitive and helps us to open up new markets for our products."
But the industry continues to face staunch opposition to pipeline proposals . It is waiting to see whether the province's climate policies – and indeed federal commitments – help build support from the public, said Terry Abel, director for oil sands at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "We're trying to speak to the ones who want to see clearly demonstrated the resources are developed responsibly and transported to market in a safe and responsible manner."
One prominent environmental group, Calgary-based Pembina Institute, has shifted ground since the Liberals were elected on the promise of climate action and Ms. Notley released her policy. Pembina is now more focused on working with government to fulfill the promises than on campaigning against projects, executive director Ed Whittingham said.
"Our concerns have focus on what pipelines would do to increase upstream [greenhouse gas] emissions," he said. The Alberta climate policy puts a cap on those emissions and provides an incentive for producers to drive down their emissions, although he said the provincial plan still allows for emissions growth from the industry and no reductions for the next 15 years, even as Canada has committed to cut GHGs by 30 per cent from 2005 levels over that period.
Toronto-based Environmental Defence's executive director Tim Gray stood on the stage with Mr. Notley and the oil company CEOs, but his group maintains its opposition to new pipelines. Mr. Gray said he supported Alberta's effort, but believes the industry cannot continue to expand emissions if Canada is to meet its international commitments.