Syncrude’s about-face

When one of Canada’s pre-eminent corporate citizens publicly apologizes for the deaths of hundreds of ducks, then months later mulls mounting a constitutional challenge to charges related to those deaths, what are we to think?

When one of Canada’s pre-eminent corporate citizens publicly apologizes for the deaths of hundreds of ducks, then months later mulls mounting a constitutional challenge to charges related to those deaths, what are we to think?

Here are a few options:

l Syncrude Canada, partially owned by Petro-Canada, Imperial Oil, ConocoPhillips and others, has more money than good sense (Petro-Canada just merged with Suncor and has assets of $40 billion, making it alone Canada’s second largest publicly-traded entity). Why else would you toss good dollars after bad to contest something you’ve already confessed to?

l Shiny corporate veneer is mighty thin: underneath the contrite national advertising campaign the company ran in the wake of the duck deaths is a rather less apologetic reality. It apparently doesn’t rest well, for some, to admit guilt, pay fines and undertake court-ordered reparations.

l Environmental issues deserve lip service but not true intent, or at least admission of guilt. That might lead to something else, like a court-mandated effort to prevent similar wildlife deaths in the future.

l The oilsands giant is unaware the world is watching Alberta’s rather abysmal environmental performance in the Fort McMurray region. Either that or it doesn’t care that the market could constrict to exclude our ‘dirty oil,’ and killing ducks in tailing ponds is monumentally dirty.

l Paying lawyers to argue constitutional minutiae, tying up valuable court time and wasting taxpayers’ money is good corporate sport. It’s certainly not good citizenship, corporate or otherwise. In a society beset by crime of all kinds, requiring Crown prosecutors to prepare for and present arcane constitutional arguments in such an apparently clear-cut case seems wasteful at best. Even before a decision has been made on constitutional challenges, and even before pleas have been entered, three months of court time has been booked in St. Albert next year to hear the case.

Nevertheless, Syncrude is considering a challenge to Ottawa’s constitutional right to charge it for failing to prevent the deaths of 1,600 ducks last year.

Syncrude faces provincial and federal charges in the duck deaths. Last spring, hundreds of ducks landed on the tailing ponds, became saturated with oil and other leavings, and perished. The noise-makers commonly used to scare off waterfowl had not been deployed.

The company admitted all of this in a national advertising campaign that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It apologized and promised to do better.

Yet now its lawyers, no doubt on direction from corporate offices, are considering a constitutional challenge to the charges.

How, Canadians must wonder, is justice served, the environment tended and the future marketability of our resources ensured by such behaviour?

The Petroleum Services Association of Canada estimated earlier this spring that 12,000 to 15,000 workers have been laid off in the oil sector since last fall. Uncertainty in the energy market has led to the $100 billion worth of projects being cancelled or delayed.

Syncrude, and the industry giants that bankroll it, have plenty of problems to solve and obstacles to overcome without wasting time on a game of legal stickhandling.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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