Image: Steve Williams at a 2012 Suncor Annual General Meeting via Flickr
– By Carol Linnitt • Tuesday, August 2, 2016
“Lease agreements often establish rules that limit ‘high-grading’ and Suncor is clearly trying to get those rules changed,” Stewart said, adding this would likely help companies shut-in low-performance in situ operations.
Stewart said it makes sense in an increasingly carbon-constrained world for fossil fuel companies to want to back out of their least profitable leases and added it’s interesting in this case that Williams chose to adopt the language of environmentalists to justify doing so.
“He could have said this in corporate-speak that would be meaningless to most, but instead he used a term that — until recently — was only used by the environmental movement. The asset is stranded, or worthless, because the oil has to stay in the ground to avoid dangerous levels of warming and that isn’t something most oil executives want to talk about.”
While high-grading assets isn’t necessarily a bad thing from an environmental perspective, the act of stranding assets needs to be considered in a global context, Stewart said.
“Williams called for a ‘modest’ stranding of assets, whereas climate science tells us we need to strand around 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves. So we’re still far apart on how much ‘stranding’ is called for. But if you think back to the federal election, it was considered heretical when an NDP candidate suggested some of the oilsands had to be left in the ground so this is an interesting development.”
Alberta’s climate plan placed a hard cap of 100 megatonnes on oilsands production, but 130 megatonnes of projects have already been approved.
Dyer, who sits on the Alberta Oilsands Advisory Group, a coalition of industry, environmental and First Nations leaders, said Alberta faces the difficult task of taking approved projects off the table.
“We’re going to have a competitive process whereby the Alberta regulator decides which projects go forward. They can’t all go forward under the cap so again we’re in a situation where the Alberta Energy Regulator, instead of approving every project, has to decide which of these projects is better for Alberta,” he said.
“If we’re never going to extract all of the bitumen, why don’t you high-grade and take the most profitable stuff that has the least environmental impact?”
Dyer said it’s important for Alberta to recognize a global transition away from fossil fuels is taking place.
“You’ve got to consider the Paris agreement and countries musing about being fossil fuel free by 2050 and the uptake of electric vehicles,” he said.
“It’s a tough point for Albertans but whether we like it or not the world’s changing,” he said. “At the current rate of production it would take us 200 years to get through the oilsands. It’s just inconceivable that will happen.”
So, if some of Alberta’s bitumen is being taken off the table, a conversation needs to take place about how that will happen. Dyer said he hopes that conversation will take place publicly and transparently.
“I think if we get policy to move from the idea that you extract everything regardless of the benefit or the cost and instead you actually make decisions based on optimizing benefits, that can only be a positive thing.”