Alta. Statoil case watched in Norway

Activists say environmental charges against Norwegian energy giant Statoil related to its Alberta oilsands mine are being closely monitored in the multinational's home country.
Protesters held a banner outside the Edmonton courthouse Wednesday. (CBC)

Activists say environmental charges against Norwegian energy giant Statoil related to its Alberta oilsands mine are being closely monitored in the multinational's home country.

Statoil made its first appearance on the 19 charges Wednesday in an Edmonton courtroom, where they were put over until June 30 — an unusually long adjournment to allow lawyers to come to grips with extensive documentation in the case, said Crown prosecutor Susan McRory.

"It's a massive amount of disclosure," she said outside court. "These files are big."

Statoil faces 16 charges of improperly diverting water at its oilsands project in 2008 and 2009 and another three of providing false or misleading statements.

Representatives of several Norwegian environmental organizations were in court Wednesday. Martin Norman of Greenpeace Norway said interest in the Scandinavian country is high.

"I already have a line of journalists and TV stations waiting for me to finish with you so I can call them at home," he told reporters. "It's a very big issue in Norway on many levels.

A Norwegian environmental organization ran a half-page ad in an Edmonton newspaper to tell Canadians that many people in Norway oppose state-owned Statoil's oilsands involvement.

"We deeply regret that Norway's 67 per cent state-owned company Statoil is part of this dirty and dangerous project," said the ad from the Grandparents Climate Action of Norway, which says it has about 2,000 members who include retired jurists, politicians, scientists and church leaders.

"The Norwegian environmental movement has therefore demanded that the Parliament and government must instruct Statoil to withdraw from the tarsands exploitation in Alberta."

Greenpeace plans to table another motion through Statoil shareholders at the company's upcoming annual general meeting that would commit the company to selling off its oilsands holdings.

Norman acknowledged there's little chance of that happening. But he added the environmental charges are deeply embarrassing for Statoil.

"On the tarsands issue, they were very clear early on that they were going to do this better than everybody else and they were going to change the industry for the better," he said. "It's quite embarrassing that they're almost the first ones to get charged on environmental issues."

Statoil's oilsands project uses so-called in-situ techniques, which don't involve open mines. The company says injecting steam deep underground and pumping out the softened bitumen has less impact on the landscape and is more environmentally benign.

Greenpeace begs to differ.

In a report to be released Thursday, the group uses government studies and briefing notes to argue that in situ development poses its own environmental issues.

The report says in-situ generates more greenhouse gases than conventional oilsands mining. It quotes academic research that suggests that an open-pit oilsands mine generates between 62 to 164 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for every barrel of oil produced, but in-situ produces between 99 and 176 kilograms.

As well, it points to Environment Canada data showing that such developments release toxins that include benzene, cadmium and mercury. It quotes a federal advisory board warning that in-situ mining's impact on groundwater isn't adequately understood.

It also says that once roads, pipelines and the natural gas development required to fuel such extraction are considered, in-situ may actually disturb more land than open-pit oilsands mining.