If we’re going to lower emissions, allowing Alberta to increase fossil-fuel-related exports will harm the economic prospects of the rest of Canada.
WHEN PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU said a year ago that the Alberta oil sands would be “phased out” over time, Albertans were furious. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who represents Fort McMurray, told CBC, “We certainly don’t need out-of-touch, federal politicians sounding like Jane Fonda on this topic.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was more circumspect. Still, if Albertans aren’t ready to embrace the end of the oil sands ever, then it’s not surprising some of us are fighting to keep bitumen in the ground.
With politics being what it is, we are going about that task in a round-about way. The BC government is heading to court to get a ruling “to reinforce BC’s constitutional rights to defend against the risks of a bitumen spill.” In effect, this should allow BC the right to put limits on what goes into (and comes out of) pipelines that cross our province. If it’s judged that we don’t have that right, I am not sure what the government’s next move is, but many citizens seem ready and willing to block construction if that’s the only option.
Meanwhile, BC First Nations are also in court with no less than 15 challenges to Kinder Morgan’s plans. They have been joined by other First Nations. “First Nations all across Canada are not going to let First Nations in BC stand alone in their fight against Kinder Morgan: now more than ever we have to stand up for the water, a livable climate, and a decent future for the next generation,” said Chief Arnold Gardner of Eagle Lake First Nation in Ontario.
While the court cases play out, Trudeau and Notley continue to try to sell their scheme of building “a bridge to a cleaner economy” by expanding oil sands production and finding higher-paying overseas buyers. They argue this will be good for the rest of Canada’s economy—that it is in our national interest. But their math doesn’t work.
Only if we’re not concerned about all the impacts of fossil-fuel emissions—sea level rise, ecosystem disruption, ocean acidification, desertification, drought, crop failures, and so on—would Trudeau and Notley’s insistence on getting Alberta bitumen to foreign markets make sense. But they say they are committed to capping emissions at a level that will keep us meeting our international commitments, which are aimed at a maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming—necessary to reduce the intensity of all of the above impacts.
Canada has agreed to lower annual national emissions to 150 megatonnes by 2050. In 2015 we emitted 722 megatonnes of carbon, so we’ve a long, long way to go. Alberta has agreed to cap oil sands production—currently at 67.8 megatonnes (at least)—at 100 megatonnes annually. Just on the face of it, this is going to pose problems as the “caps” pull in opposite directions.
But it’s even more problematic as some number-crunching shows. Last year in Focus, David Broadland showed why it is more than likely that Alberta’s oil sands are already pumping out more than its annual cap of 100 megatonnes of carbon emissions. He pointed out that when applying the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service figures for average emissions intensity—instead of less reliable Canadian figures—emissions from Alberta’s oil sands (from extraction, upgrading and pipeline transportation) are already at 116 megatonnes, and not at the 67.8 megatonnes that Environment Canada has them. David tried another, more conservative analysis, and got 94 megatonnes.
Neither of these totals include “fugitive emissions”that escape from tailing ponds, oil sands mine faces, oil and gas valves, pumps and pipelines. Alberta already produces the lion’s share of those in Canada at 35 megatonnes each year (Canada’s total is 61 megatonnes).
Because Alberta and Trudeau’s government only acknowledge 67.8 megatonnes, Alberta has permission to ramp up another 50 percent above current levels.
“The contradiction of facilitating oil sands growth while discouraging the use of fossil fuels with a carbon tax or fees is jarring enough,” wrote David. “But the bizarre, long-term consequences for the Canadian economy of these two initiatives, if they both play out as hoped for by Trudeau and Notley, seems to have been overlooked.” Alberta would have a stranglehold on allowable emissions. Bitumen production for export will come to dominate Canada’s national carbon budget. Virtually all other industries will have less and less ability to emit, because the oil sands will be using up our national allowance.
As shown in the accompanying graph, by 2045—or 5 years earlier if oil sands emissions have been underestimated—fossil-fuel-export-related emissions will have eaten up Canada’s entire carbon budget. This includes all of Canada’s fossil-fuel exports, not just Alberta’s bitumen. That leaves only 22 years to transform every household and every industry to operating totally carbon-free just so Canada can develop its low-value hydrocarbon export industry. Most of those emissions will be tied to Alberta’s export of low-value bitumen. How will Canada's many industries that have higher value per tonne of emissions than oil sands mining fare in a North American economy in which fossil-fuel exports to the US can't be reduced without that country's agreement?
Federal emissions reduction targets (red line) plotted against expected increases in upstream emissions that would result from extraction of fossil fuels destined for export, mainly to the US. The light grey uses emissions intensities claimed by Alberta and Environment Canada. The yellow plot uses emissions intensities from the nonpartisan US Congressional Research Service.
The National Observer’s Barry Saxifrage has arrived at similar conclusions. In a recent piece on oil sands domination of future emissions, he writes: “On the present course, almost everything else in Canada would have to shut down for the country to meet its climate change targets.”
Saxifrage starts with the current acknowledged emissions claimed by Environment Canada. Still, by 2050, the oil sands will consume 78 percent of Canada’s allowable emissions. More actually, because, as he reminds us, “the Paris Accord requires all nations to set increasingly ambitious targets every five years.”
Instead of being part of a climate solution for Canada, he points out, “Alberta’s ‘hard cap’ allows just one industry to consume our nation’s climate goals and obligations.”
Saxifrage also does some interesting number-crunching on jobs, which shows the myth-making afoot when Notley and Trudeau say we need to develop the oil sands for our economy. Estimates from Stats Canada and Petroleum Labour Market Information (PetroLMI) show the oil sands provides a paltry 2.5 percent of Canada’s GDP, and only 0.5 percent of Canada’s jobs.
It would be folly to think that’s going to get better. Recent data from PetroLMI, Saxifrage notes, show the oil sands industry is on track to reduce its workforce by 21 percent per barrel between 2010 and 2021. “All sectors of the industry—in situ, mining and upgrading—are significantly reducing workers per barrel,” he writes. “Demanning” or “zero manning” the oil sands is how one Cenovus Energy executive describes it to investors. Meanwhile, Suncor is replacing hundreds of its workers with driverless trucks.
The math and logic are clear, and so is our moral responsibility to future generations. Canada’s per capita GHG emissions are the third highest in the world. Notley can’t be allowed to increase Albertans share of allowable national emissions for the purpose of increasing fossil fuel exports. To do so would damage the economic prospects of all other Canadians and prevent us from being a good global citizen.
Leslie Campbell is Focus’ editor. For more on the numbers, see “Alberta’s Deathgrip on Canada” and check out Barry Saxifrage’s work at www.nationalobserver.com.