Environmentalists Push To Keep Canadian Crude In The Ground

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on January 8, 2015 10:29 am

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian oil sands down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, isn't just an infrastructure project. It's also a symbol for the fight over the future of energy.

Producing oil from Alberta's tar sands emits more pollution than traditional oil drilling, so many environmentalists want that crude left in the ground. And more broadly, they want the world to turn away from climate-changing fossil fuels toward cleaner forms of energy, like wind and solar.

Mike Hudema, who works with Greenpeace Canada as a climate and energy campaigner, is one of those activists. He says he sympathizes with people who need jobs: He has family members who work in Alberta's oil fields. Still, Hudema considers it a victory when big oil companies announce delays in new oil sands projects.

Last September, Norway's Statoil postponed one project for at least three years. Before that, French oil giant Total S.A. shelved a planned project.

"Total cancelled its multi-billion-dollar tar sands project," Hudema says, "And they've stated fairly openly that part of the reason for the cancellation is because of lack of pipeline capacity."

The Keystone XL pipeline is one project that would boost capacity. And companies do say the ability to transport crude out of Canada is one reason they delay projects. But there are other reasons that are just as important, says Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"It hasn't been one single pipeline that has been the cause of that re-evaluation," he says. "It has been labor; it has been competitiveness; it has been the corporate decisions."

Those corporate decisions include the question of where a global company will choose to invest its money. And today — especially with low oil prices — it's not hard to find more lucrative investments.

The Keystone XL approval delay is just one setback for an industry Stringham says has a bright future. Canada's oil sands produced more than 2 million barrels of crude per day last year.

New projects are in the works, Stringham says, and output will grow.

"It is to the point where it has gone from just a Canadian industry to a North American industry and we're on the verge of moving it to a global industry," he says.

So, Stringham says, companies aren't waiting for the Keystone XL pipeline. There are other ways to move oil: trains, barges and alternate pipelines. He says as long as the U.S. and the world wants oil, Alberta will find a way to supply it.

For opponents who want to keep that oil in the ground, like Hudema at Greenpeace, that means more battles ahead.

"When we talk about tar sands development we're talking about going against the biggest carbon bullies on the plant," Hudema says. "Every major multinational oil company is involved in this development."

Comparing their resources to his, Hudema says he thinks environmental groups are doing a pretty good job. And every day that Alberta's tar sands oil stays in the ground is another victory.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Keystone XL pipeline is a symbol as much as an infrastructure project. It's symbolic because producing oil from Alberta's tar sands emits more pollution than traditional oil drilling. Many environmentalists want that crude oil left in the ground. NPR's Jeff Brady reports their campaigns have met with some success.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: There are people with environmental groups who work full-time to keep crude oil from Canada's tar sands in the ground. They want the world to turn away from climate-changing fossil fuels toward cleaner forms of energy like wind and solar.

MIKE HUDEMA: My name is Mike Hudema. I work with Greenpeace Canada as a climate and energy campaigner.

BRADY: Hudema says he has family members who work in Alberta's oil fields, so he sympathizes with people who need jobs. Still he considers it a victory when big oil companies announce delays in new oil sands projects. Last September, Norway's Statoil postponed one project for at least three years, and before that, Hudema says, there was another big announcement from a French oil giant.

HUDEMA: Total canceled its multibillion-dollar tar sands project and they stated, fairly openly, that part of the reason for the cancellation is because of lack of pipeline capacity.

BRADY: The Keystone XL is one project that would boost capacity and it's true. Companies say the ability to transport crude out of Canada is one reason they delay projects. But there are other reasons that are just as important. Greg Stringham is vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

GREG STRINGHAM: It hasn't been one single pipeline that has been the cause of that reevaluation. It has been labor; it has been competitiveness; it has been the corporate decisions.

BRADY: Decisions like where a global company will choose to invest its money. And today, especially with low oil prices, it's not hard to find other more lucrative investments. The Keystone XL approval delay is just one setback for an industry Stringham says has a bright future. Canada's oil sands produced more than 2 million barrels of crude a day last year. Stringham says new projects are in the works and that output will grow.

STRINGHAM: It is to the point where it has gone from just a Canadian industry to a North American industry. And we're on the verge of moving it to a global industry.

BRADY: So, Stringham says, companies aren't waiting for the Keystone XL pipeline. There are other ways to move oil - trains, barges and alternate pipelines. He says as long as the U.S. and the world wants oil, Alberta will find a way to supply it. For opponents who want to keep that oil in the ground, like Mike Hudema at Greenpeace, that means more battles ahead.

HUDEMA: When we talk about tar sands development, you're talking about going against the biggest carbon bullies on the planet, and every major multinational oil company is involved in this development.

BRADY: Comparing their resources to his, Hudema says he thinks environmental groups are doing a pretty good job. And every day that Alberta's tar sands oil stays in the ground is another victory. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.