‘Guilty’ plea fuels oil sands opposition

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Greenpeace was among environmental groups calling on Norwegian oil company Statoil to finally heed ongoing calls for it to pull out of its controversial oil sands project in Alberta, after reports that Statoil was pleading guilty to various water use violations in the Canadian province.

An aerial view of Statoil's Leismer oil sands demonstration project, which Statoil claims was not directly involved in its Canadian water violations. PHOTO: Statoil

Statoil has been back in court in Alberta this week, after being charged last winter with violating terms of its water license and providing false and misleading information regarding water withdrawal for drilling activities. Statoil officials didn’t want to go into detail, but confirmed to news bureau NTB that it was admitting guilt on some of the charges and likely would go along with “creative sentencing,” reportedly a common punishment for environmental crimes in Canada.

Statoil spokesman Bård Glad Pedersen told NTB the punishment could involve information-sharing “so the entire industry can learn” from Statoil’s mistakes, or payment of fines, with the money earmarked for education and research projects or measures to boost standards in the industry.

The charges against Statoil involved violations of Canada’s Water Act dating back to 2008 and 2009. Statoil claims they were related to winter drilling activities, not to the company’s operation of its Leismer Demonstration Plant that started producing the oil sands project’s first oil in January. During winter drilling, according to Statoil, water is mainly used to build roads made of ice to transport equipment in the field. Statoil was charged with tapping into various waterways without permission.

‘Embarrassing’
Statoil’s involvement in the Canadian oil sands project has been controversial from the start, and the leader of Greenpeace in Norway, Truls Gulowsen, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Statoil’s admission of guilt doesn’t make its violations any less serious. He has called Statoil’s violations “embarrassing for Statoil and Norway,” and his colleagues in the environmental protection movement think the entire project is an embarrassment since Norwegian officials promote a high environmental profile internationally.

“Oil and Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe has said that Statoil should be the best in its class,” Gulowsen, who’s been in Edmonton this week to follow the court case, told NRK. “Now that they’ve admitted they aren’t, they should take responsibility and pull the company out of the (oil sands) project.”

Political conflict
Statoil’s oil sands project, which had produced a million barrels of oil by June, has caused political conflict within Norway’s coalition government, with one of its member parties, the Socialist Left (SV) opposed to it and keen for Statoil to pull out. The government is Statoil’s largest shareholder, but neither Moe, the oil minister from the Center Party, nor officials from the government’s dominant Labour Party want to instruct Statoil’s executives on how to run the company. So the government hasn’t used its shareholder power to demand a pull-out, at least not yet.

Erik Solheim of SV, the government minister in charge of environmental issues, has also been a critic of the oil sands project but lacks support for a pull-out from his ministerial colleagues. In a related issue, however, he told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Thursday that he now hopes news of Statoil’s huge oil discovery in the North Sea will reduce pressure on the need for new oil sources, for example through drilling around scenic Lofoten in northern Norway.

Critics of the oil sands project, who include a grandmothers’ group and politicians in addition to environmental organizations, are likely to use the same argument against the oil sands project, which even according to Statoil’s own statistics generates far more carbon emissions than extraction of North Sea oil.

Statoil, though, has shown no signs of backing out. The company has argued for years that the world needs more sources of oil, that it’s well-positioned to conduct responsible extraction and that it’s trying to be a “good neighbour” in Canada. The company also has invested billions in the project, but sold off a major stake last year.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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