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Canada's Oil Insiders Want a Carbon Tax

Surprising as that sounds, interviews reveal a business community consensus based on economics. Third in a Tyee Solutions Society series.

By Geoff Dembicki, 20 Jun 2012, TheTyee.ca

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'We think a price should be put on carbon,' Suncor's Gordon Lambert (center) told Tyee Solutions. Photo: Public Policy Forum.

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Few oil patch executives have as much experience on the front-lines of Alberta's bitumen industry as Neil Camarta. Retired now from oil and gas development, he has held senior positions at Shell Canada, Syncrude, PetroCanada and Suncor. 

Camarta personally oversaw construction of Shell's $6-billion Muskeg River Mine, a project challenged by persistent labour shortages and a series of explosions not long after it opened. The project's timeline also coincided with a surge in oil prices from $12 to $100 per barrel, which set off an economic boom harder and faster than anything northern Alberta had ever seen. 

Camarta was at PetroCanada by the time the Great Recession of 2008 struck. "Hell on wheels," is how he described it. Oil sands investment shrank just as quickly as it had grown. 

Now, after four years of shaky global recovery, it's set to hit record highs once again.

But the former executive says he has also witnessed an unprecedented shift in thinking within the corporate culture on climate, global warming and the role of carbon in both. The issue has evolved from one that worried only progressive Europe, Camarta says, to something "talked about in every boardroom in Calgary." 

Camarta still feels passionately for the modern oil sands industry he helped create. "Give me some dirt, some good people and a few billion dollars and I can have a lot of fun," he told the Globe and Mail in early 2011, days before his retirement from Suncor. 

So Camarta's answer to his industry's soaring greenhouse emissions may come as a surprise. "If Canada really wants to reduce CO2," he told the Tyee Solutions Society, "there has to be a carbon tax across the whole economy."

That kind of talk helped destroy former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's disastrous 2008 bid for Prime Minister. Conservative Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recently told Parliament that a carbon tax would, "kill and hurt Canadian families." 

Yet within Canada's business community, support for a market price on carbon is so broad it could be considered virtually mainstream. 

Senior figures from Suncor and Cenovus, two of the largest and most profitable oil sands companies in the country, told the Tyee Solutions Society directly that they support a national carbon tax. Chief executives from more than 150 of Canada's largest corporations have likewise publicly urged the government to establish a price on carbon.

Advocating for a tax on the nation's carbon may remain politically taboo in Conservative Ottawa. But to many business leaders, both inside the oil industry and outside it, economic prudence dictates that the sooner Canada just gets on with such a tax, the better.  

Understanding this remarkably overlooked consensus requires reorienting some commonly held beliefs about corporate decision-making. After all, wouldn't a carbon tax impose new costs on a company's bottom line? And isn't this contrary to the goal of maximizing shareholder profits?  

Big capital and long horizons

The short answer to both is yes. But in an industry whose investments run into billions of dollars, in projects with lifetimes that run to decades, the short answer isn't always the revealing one.

A 2010 background report from Sustainable Prosperity, an Ottawa-based think tank, revealed the more nuanced approach to strategic planning that really takes place in Canada's corporate boardrooms, especially when it comes to climate change.

From 2008 to 2009, researcher Kaija Belfry Monroe interviewed more than a dozen Canadian business associations and 17 major corporations -- including Suncor, Shell and Nexen -- about their perspective on global warming and the policies needed to address it. 

Monroe's findings surprised her: "The business community in Canada is overwhelmingly in favour of a price on carbon," she wrote.    

The explanation has a lot to do with risk: how companies view it, and how they manage it.

Canada's lack of climate regulations allows oil sands firms and others to release vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere -- and pay very little for the privilege. But there's no guarantee things will stay this way forever.

In fact, many of the country's biggest firms think a Canadian price on carbon is beyond a serious possibility. They consider it inevitable. The big unknown is what that price will be. For companies wagering billions of dollars on high-carbon investments, it's a potentially crippling uncertainty. The consequences of guessing wrong could be fatal. 

"In the worst case," the Sustainable Prosperity study argued, stringent climate policy can "lead to bankruptcy if business decisions do not take into account increased costs over the long term."

Uncertainty about the shape and impact of future Canadian climate regulation is already affecting investment in Alberta's oil sands. Nexen, for one, cited a variety of reasons including the global recession for its 2008 decision to delay a major expansion of its oil sands operation at Long Lake, Alberta. But uncertainty about climate change and North America's plan to address it were also factors, a Nexen spokesperson said at the time.

By 2010, Nexen still worried about the "political forces" shaping carbon policy, as it noted in documents filed to the Carbon Disclosure Project. Canada had adopted new climate targets early that year after attending global warming talks in Copenhagen. In the United States, Congressional approval of a national cap and trade system seemed to be inching closer each day.

Things aren't much clearer two years later, with Canada officially withdrawn from the Kyoto accord and U.S. carbon pricing a political dead zone.

A price to uncertainty

Nexen still intends to ramp up production at its Long Lake facility (and has plans for a new in-situ operation named Kinosis). But years of indecision illuminate a wider dilemma for Canada's business community. 

"The greater the uncertainty about a (climate) policy option, particularly one that would increase costs, the more concern it causes for investors," concluded the Sustainable Prosperity report. "Undoubtedly, eight years of policy uncertainty on climate change in Canada has been very bad for business."

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