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The world is moving quickly towards electrification and renewable energy. Canada needs to move with it, or be left behind by the next and cleanest-ever industrial revolution.
The political furor over the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline was predictable (so much so that it could have been scripted nearly verbatim in advance). But these pipeline projects were proposed in the Stephen Harper era when the urgency of climate change and the global trends toward a low-carbon economy were being ignored.
Since then, the world has changed.
China's announcement of plans to ban fossil fuel cars is just the most recent manifestation of that change.
Since the oil industry proposed tripling the size of the oilsands and building these new pipelines, we have seen incredible advances in battery storage, an enormous drop in the price of renewables, and the commitments made under the Paris Agreement.
Now, oil demand is slowing, and for the first time the world is coming to terms with a peak and decline in the demand for oil.
All in the last couple of years.
Sometimes, when you are in the middle of a deep transformation, you just don't realize how fast it can go. When I started this work 25 years ago, we didn't use the Internet, there were no cell phones, and we got rolls of film developed to see pictures. That’s how fast the world can change. And what happened with information technology is just starting to happen with energy.
The Energy East cancellation has angered many people because they see it as an economic threat — and that's real to a great many Canadians. Jobs and our economy are threatened by our refusal as a nation to have an honest conversation and plan for how we will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels — for our own consumption, and for export.
Simply put, we cannot build a new, clean economy by building more of the dangerous, polluting infrastructure the world is trying to phase out.
I am glad we have an Alberta Climate Plan and the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, but I think our elected officials are being dishonest when they say adding more pipelines are consistent with that plan. That is only true if industry is successful in bringing down the cost of technologies to reduce emissions per barrel. So far, only pilot projects exist. Overall, the industry has seen no improvement in emissions intensity in the last 10 years.
Oil production will have to decline after 2030 to meet our climate commitments. Even more disturbing is that Canada’s climate plan and our pipeline aspirations completely ignore the fact that 80 per cent of emissions from oil are not from production but from burning that oil. By defining climate leadership simply in terms of domestic emissions we continue plans to expand the oil and gas industry even though research shows that any new exploration will take the world past 2°C and a safe climate. Can we really call ourselves climate leaders if we continue to export the problem?
You don't build a pipeline for 10 years. They cost billions of dollars, and it takes 30 to 40 years to justify the investment. If the world needs that much bitumen from the oilsands in 30 to 40 years, we will have failed to ensure climate safety. That much oil demand would mean a world that is 4°C to 6°C warmer on average than pre-industrial times.
Even by a conservative analysis, that's a Mad Max world — acidified oceans, constant extreme weather, mass migration of people and extinctions.
Against that horrendous yet looming future, is it too much to ask our politicians to plan infrastructure in accordance with our climate goals?
Yes, we need economic development, jobs, and a plan to achieve both while the production of fossil fuels declines. But we aren't going to get them by pretending we can still expand this industry, or reinforcing the frame that Harper put in place — that pipelines equal economic success. That’s only true (if at all) in the very short term, and it virtually guarantees economic failure down the line. We will have failed Canadian workers and the economy if we’re not doing the hard work to design a forward-looking, smart economy based on competitiveness studies and a hard look at global trends.
We have the talent in Canada to get this right. What we lack is courage in our political system, where even progressive politicians are accepting an old political and economic calculus — that increasing oil and gas development and building more pipelines equal economic success.
In truth, even some of the so-called clean economy we are building in Canada reflects that obsolete outlook — a close look at the federal government’s “clean energy” budget shows at least half of the money going to the oil industry, underwriting expensive, and technologically exotic projects like carbon capture and storage for oil sands and gas — all in an attempt to “green” fossil fuels, rather than transitioning for real.
The cancellation of Energy East has triggered fear and polarization in this country. I fear that if Kinder Morgan continues to push its pipeline expansion forward, a bad situation will get worse. So, I want to say one thing very clearly to those who work in the industry:
Those of us who oppose these pipelines recognize that an unplanned reduction in the production of oil and gas in this country would be devastating, and that everyone deserves access to clean, secure, safe jobs.
The people who work in this industry deserve policy that results in job security, training, and opportunity to ensure families are supported while we build the future. A future in which no one working in today’s energy industry is left behind in the coming transition.
This must be our shared goal and our common quest. But we’re not going to get there by denying today's reality.
Canada will move away from fossil fuels, whether it’s by design or by default.
If we’re forced to make the shift — by falling demand for which we haven’t prepared, by escalating costs due to tougher carbon restrictions to ensure a safe climate — the change will be very painful.
To avoid that future, we need to design the next Canadian economy together. Which means Ottawa needs to stop pretending it can have its cake and eat it too.