Elizabeth May: An Oilsands Bargain that Actually Makes Sense

In December 2015, the world agreed to the Paris Accord; to slash greenhouse gas emissions to hold global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (over what it was before the Industrial Revolution), and, if we miss that target, to as far below 2 degrees as possible.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is not an environmental agency. It advises governments about demand and supply of energy. Since 2012, IEA has warned that to avoid going over 2 degrees C, two-thirds of all known reserves of fossil fuels must stay in the ground until 2050.

But that was to stay at 2 degrees. We have made a commitment to hold at 1.5 degrees. That half a degree is the difference between low-lying island states surviving, or Arctic ice remaining over the North Pole in summer, or increasing the risk of losing the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet or Greenland ice sheet (either one of which implies an eight-metre sea level rise.)

It is hard to get a fix on our carbon budget. One problem is that dangerous levels of climate change are exacerbated by positive feedback loops — changes that release more greenhouse gases from nature due to warming driven by humans. So forest fires, melting permafrost and loss of ice drive up the warming that itself speeds up the warming.

A group of European and Canadian scientists published their best estimates of our carbon budget in 2016 in Nature Climate Change. Their study set the carbon budget for global emissions from 2015 to forever at no more than 590 billion tons. That’s all we can emit.

In 2016, globally we emitted 49.3 billion tons, so now our global carbon budget is down to 540 billion tons. Do the math. At current emission rates, if we want to avoid disaster, we have approximately eleven years before we blow through the global carbon budget.

These are lines we cannot cross if we want to hold on to a functioning human civilization — not a collection of failed states, desperate environmental refugees and collapsing food systems.

So where is Canada in this? Canada’s climate target  — 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — is described as our Paris target in national media and by the Trudeau cabinet. The problem is it is not our Paris target. Canada has yet to adopt a target consistent with 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees. Canada’s target remains the same one set by Harper in May 2015 — seven months before the negotiations in Paris. The Harper target equates to 2030 emissions of 517 million tons (or megatonnes).

Unfortunately, we are currently on track to miss the Harper target by 187 million tons.

So where is there room for a pipeline? Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has committed to capping oilsands emissions at 100 megatonnes/year. Current emissions are less than the cap — approximately 70 megatonnes/year. So Kinder Morgan’s emissions don’t even fit into a plan to meet Harper’s emissions targets.

As Jeffrey Sachs wrote in the Globe and Mail earlier this month: “The truth is that Alberta oilsands have absolutely no place in a climate-safe world. Investing in them is almost surely to be investing in a future bankruptcy.”

What about the constant claim that our economy depends on the oilsands?


Even at the height of oilsands growth when oil sold for more than $100/barrel, oilsands amounted to less than three per cent of national GDP. We can plan our way to a transition away from fossil fuels, and still help the Alberta economy.

Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity are roughly the same as from the oilsands. While Alberta has promised to end coal-fired electricity by 2030, and is building 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, it will also allow some of those coal units to convert to using inefficient fracked natural gas. Instead, we should invest in an enhanced east-west electricity grid and bring in renewables from neighbouring provinces, while Alberta takes advantage of its huge potential in solar and wind.

But that still leaves the oilsands, which can’t be allowed to expand emissions by 30 per cent. Here’s a solution: cap the oilsands at 70 megatonnnes/year and create jobs in Alberta by providing federal assistance to build upgraders and refineries.

Yes, those will inevitably include greenhouse gas emissions, but far fewer than shipping solid bitumen overseas to refining elsewhere. This path means we ensure we are producing bitumen on a declining basis, but upgrading and refining in Alberta and keeping those jobs here.

Canada has been losing refinery jobs for decades. That’s why the major oilsands unions, like Unifor, oppose Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. In the 1970s, Canada had 40 refineries. Now we have 16 and buy our gas, diesel and propane from refineries in the U.S. at higher prices.

We import approximately 700,000 barrels of foreign crude per day to Eastern Canada. Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion will increase exports by 590,000 barrels per day. Why not stop imports, process bitumen in Alberta and sell it across Canada?

The answer comes readily. Big Oil has decreed that Canada provide raw resources for export, not value added.

But what if we took a page from Peter Lougheed’s book? His first rule for resource development was “think like an owner.” Instead of bailing out an American company, let’s put federal support behind building upgraders and refineries in Alberta — in exchange for which Alberta agrees to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands to 35 megatonnes by 2050. We would end up with more jobs and a less volatile economy. There will also be lots of jobs in trying to clean up the tailings ponds and despoiled landscape of the Athabasca. Polluter pays.

That is the kind of bargain that makes sense. With this plan, you could say “the economy and the environment go hand in hand” without having to suspend disbelief.


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