Today 12 oil companies have joined together to create the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). The groups state the purpose of COSIA is to share and conduct research and technology development in several key areas of environmental performance in the tar sands. These areas include greenhouse gases, land disturbance, water, air emissions and management of tailings, the toxic effluent produced by tar sands. For more information please see the report in the National Post.
One must be skeptical of such an alliance of multi-national corporations operating in the tar sands. Tar sands development has been under heavy criticism over the last year after disparaging reports from the October Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which criticized current monitoring and the legitimacy of RAMP’s data. That coupled with tar sands pipeline opposition in the US (TransCanada – Keystone XL) and Canada (Enbridge Northern Gateway), and the recent heated debates surrounding the labeling of tar sands as a high carbon fuel in the new EU Fuel Quality Directive, one starts to see the motives of these corporations. They are doing their best to create positive PR for their shareholders and the public.
This effort of major oil companies banning together to try and create “independent data” on tar sands seems like a last ditch effort to try and greenwash the industry. COSIA even went so far as remarking that although they will be independent of CAPP they feel CAPP will be supportive of their research and work. Of course they will be and already are. CAPP has been working as hard as the tobacco industry did by exploring any and all efforts to disprove the negative impacts of their respective industries. CAPP has highlighted COSIA on their homepage with a link directly to COSIA’s “independent” site.
One should be cautious of the data being developed by COSIA, which will produce non-binding recommendations with no actual set goals or timelines for any environmental protection or stewardship. In fact, in their opening statement representatives from COSIA made it clear they are looking at improving environmental leadership while facilitating the growth of the work in the tar sands. Basically, business as usual with the continued pace of ridiculous growth, but now with a new veil to try and placate the public.
Greenpeace had this to say about today’s announcement:
In the absence of any commitments to real reductions in pollution with penalties for not meeting them, this is simply another example of “greenwash”, where an industry association makes vague promises to clean up its act in order to avoid regulations with real teeth. This regulatory dodge was invented by the chemical industry in the 1980s post-Bhopal and perfected by the oil and auto industries in the 1990s as they signed up to a “voluntary challenge” in order to avoid real limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
What is interesting about today’s announcement is that the audience for this PR initiative is not the federal or Alberta governments, who have made it clear that they won’t bring in new regulations or even enforce the ones they have, but governments in the US and Europe who are preparing to act on the climate impact of the tar sands because they recognize that Canadian governments won’t.
 For an academic take on this, see Douglas Macdonald, Business and Environmental Politics in Canada, Broadview Press (2007), especially Chapter 5. We’re still waiting for those tough new limits on industrial polluters John Baird promised in 2007, while Peter Kent has indefinitely delayed his promised regulations on the tar sands.  The Government of Alberta is not enforcing its own tailings rules.
The 12 companies which have signed the COSIA Charter are: BP Canada Energy Company, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Cenovus Energy Inc., ConocoPhillips Canada Resources Corp., Devon Canada Corporation, Imperial Oil, Nexen Inc., Shell Canada Energy, Statoil Canada Ltd., Suncor Energy Inc., Teck Resources Limited, and Total E&P Canada Ltd.
The names on this list are not surprising. Most of them are corporations with heavy stakes in the tar sands with new projects awaiting approval. This includes Shell. It becomes increasingly clear Shell is willing to pull out all the stops and pursue all angles to try and argue there is nothing wrong with current projects to give way for a clear path for approvals of their two new projects, Jackpine Mine Expansion and Pierre River Mine. Both projects currently under review and being contested by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It should also be mentioned that Shell has also been involved in lobby efforts in the EU to try and dissuade EU countries from labeling tar sands as a high carbon fuel.
So the question remains, who’s interests are being served by such a coalition of multinational corporations deeply invested in tar sands expansion?
I hardly believe that it will be in the public’s interest and I guarantee that First Nations traditional and ecological rights will not be included in the development of any data created by COSIA. Once again a platform is being developed that exclude our people, our rights and our knowledge out of the bigger picture and gives the power to the very people who are oppressing us.