Can Statoil wash its hands of the Tar Sands?

Feature story - May 15, 2009
The largest industrial project in the world. The largest capital investment in history. The world’s second largest oil field. The Canadian Tar Sands show just how desperate the oil industry is to feed its carbon habit. Now, thanks to a Greenpeace campaign investors are starting to question the wisdom paying for a project which will destroy an area of forest the size of England, then poison the ground and condemn the world to runaway climate change.

Canada's tar sands, located in the province of Alberta, are an oil reserve the size of England

The tar sands are a source of oil buried below the Boreal Forest of northern Alberta. The tar sands are made up mostly of sand. Only 10-12 per cent isbitumen - a very heavy crude oil that must be heavily processed andrefined to be turned into synthetic crude oil. Deposits of tar sands are spread out over 138 000 km2 of land. The tar sands projects threaten ecosystems over a huge area of Alberta; polluting and depleting waterways, endangering the health of wildlife and local communities, and contributing to climate change.

One of the major investors in the tar sands is Statoil, a Norweigan oil company two thirds owned by the government. The Norwegian government continues to support the project, however, the owners of the other third of Statoil, are having second thoughts

Danske Bank has expressed its opposition to the contentious project while Norway's largest bank, DnBNOR, is holding meetings today to discuss whether continued involvement in the Alberta tar sands is a sound investment.

In addition, prominent Statoil stakeholders, Folksam, a Swedish insurance company and KPA, a Swedish pension fund, have already sent in their votes backing a Greenpeace motion demanding that Statoil withdraw its investments.

Greenpeace is making the tar sands a key issue in Norway, Sweden and Denmark in the lead-up to Statoil's AGM on May 19th. As a minor shareholder, with just enough shares to ask questions, Greenpeace has brought forward a motion calling on Statoil to withdraw its investments from the tar sands.

The Alberta tar sands has dominated headlines and television news since a Greenpeace Canada delegation arrived in Oslo Monday. Two of the delegates, Andrew Nikiforuk and Dr. John O'Connor, have raised concerns about the environmental, social and financial risks of tar sands investments that are reverberating through the Nordic business community. A two-page story on the delegates ran today in Norway's largest business newspaper, as well as a full-page profile on Nikiforuk.

"Hearing Canadians telling their own story about the reality of the tar sands is making all the difference," said Martin Norman, Greenpeace Nordic energy campaigner. "Already politicians and investors are telling us they are upset they have been so misled." 

Statoil's purchase of tar sands rights in Canada in 2007 led to headlines in Norway critical of the company and internal unrest within the company. Statoil has lately tried to create an impression that the company has chosen 'In Situ' extraction because it is an environmentally friendly form of extraction, and that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will solve the emission problems related to tar sands.

In Situ means pumping steam into the sands to heat the bitumen until it flows toward the wells. While this doesn't do the same damage to the surface as the alternative open cast mining technique, vast amounts of natural gas are burned to heat the steam, creating even higher CO2 emissions.

The Greenpeace delegation has been explaining that 'In Situ' has a much larger environmental footprint than open pit mining, and that CCS is simply not viable in the tar sands.

So far the Norweigan government is staying put. The environment minister has applauded the shareholder resolutions, but refuses to intervene. The political pressure is building though, and on the 19th of May Statoil will have the chance to wash its hands of its role in this abhorrent investment.

In the end, as was reported this month in the science journal nature, if we want to hold climate change below two degrees, which the scientific community says is the tipping point for runaway climate change, we cannot afford to touch the tar sands. It is not economic, it is not environmentally acceptable and it places a tragic burden on the people of the First Nations, whose health and way of life is being destroyed by the tar sands toxic runoff.