In Wednesday’s speech on U.S. energy security
, President Obama stated clearly that the United States would continue to rely on oil imports from Canada and other stable nations. But serious environmental concerns continue to dog the Canadian oil sands industry. Could an agreement reached by Canada’s Forest Products Association provide a model for a way forward?
In May 2010, the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA) was signed by 21 members of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and nine major environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, without government involvement. The three-year agreement represents the largest forest conservation plan in history and protects more than 72 million hectares of Canada’s Boreal Forest. It also ended a long “do not buy” campaign of FPAC products, previously spearheaded by environmental organizations.
The CBFA essentially commits FPAC to the highest environmental standards of forest management and conservation, as well as the suspension of logging in environmentally sensitive areas, in part to protect endangered caribou populations. In return, environmental organizations agreed to support FPAC members.
The oil sands industry faces a similar challenge. In both cases, industry and environmental NGOs have clashed in a long and bitter battle over industry practices and their impact on the environment. The difference is that FPAC realized that directly engaging environmental groups in reasoned discussion might be a more intelligent approach to resolving environmental challenges than shouting back and forth at one another. FPAC also believes that buyers will be attracted to their newfound reputation for sustainable practices and higher ethical standards.
Oil sands producers have much to gain by engaging the environmental community in new and innovative ways Should the CBFA model be followed, the oil sands industry may be able to negotiate an agreement with environmental organizations and voluntarily agree to higher environmental standards in return for recognition and support of their efforts from key environmental organizations.
This wouldn’t be the first initiative where creative engagement between environmental organizations and industry served to mutually benefit both sides. For instance, in 1999, WWF and Unilever created the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a program that rewards fisheries employing environmentally sustainable practices by recognizing their efforts through MSC certification and eco-labeling. Member fisheries maintain that MSC labeling has helped them retain existing markets, expand into others, and in some cases obtain a price premium for their product.
Such an initiative would go a long way to allow oil sands producers to shed their damaging reputation for producing “dirty oil.” Even if an agreement could not be reached, the oil sands industry would be viewed at the very least as willing to listen to the concerns of environmental organizations and take such issues seriously.
Not Perfect, But It’s a Start
The CBFA model may not be a perfect fit for the oil sands but it demonstrates that environmental groups and industry can find common ground on extremely contentious issues.
Finding this common ground must begin with accepting that the oil sands will never be “green.” According to a study by the Royal Society of Canada, in 2008, oil sands mining and development operations covered an area roughly the size of the state of Illinois and was responsible for emitting nearly 37 million tons of CO2. The study also found that there are legitimate concerns regarding the impact of oil sands development on the quality and quantity of regional freshwater supplies.
Nevertheless, the oil sands also represent a critical source of stable energy supplies for Canada and the United States, and calls by some environmental NGOs to halt oil sands production are unrealistic. More than 20 percent of U.S. oil is sourced from Canada, making it the United States’ leading supplier, and roughly half of that comes from the oil sands.
A CBFA-style agreement could help oil sands producers secure the U.S. market, which currently takes 99 percent of Canada’s oil exports, by quelling campaigns in the United States to stop imports from the oil sands. And under an agreement similar to the CBFA, the environmental community could have a larger say in how it is developed and extracted
As it stands, both industry and the environmental community remain engaged in a heated war of words, with neither side really listening to the other. Until they are willing to sit down and engage each other in new ways, both groups are likely to continue to talk over one another and make little progress on striking an environmental and economic balance that could ultimately benefit both sides.
Ken Crist is a program associate with the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Sources: Sources: The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, National Resources Defense Council, The New York Times, Royal Society of Canada, Vancouver Sun.
Photo Credit: “Athabasca oil sands digger,” courtesy of flickr user . Shell, and “Boreal forest 2009,” courtesy of flickr user Gord McKenna.