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In his recent column, Should the government kill the Trans Mountain pipeline project?, Max Fawcett makes the case that despite the recent revelation building costs for the project continue to spiral out of control and have hit $21.4 billion, the federal government should just bite the bullet and keep pouring taxpayers’ money into completing the pipeline.

The core of his argument seems to be that Trans Mountain will help Canadian oil producers get a better price for their product and that stopping Trans Mountain won’t reduce climate emissions.

The idea that there is a better price somewhere out there for tarsands crude stems from the fact that it sells for less than oil traded on the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) market. However, that is an apples to oranges comparison — WTI is a market for light oil with a low sulfur content, but tarsands crude is the exact opposite of that, a heavy oil with high levels of sulfur. They are different products, so naturally, they fetch different prices.

The proponents of this argument also ignore that other forms of oil produced in Alberta, including Syncrude, get a price almost identical to WTI in American dollars. The Syncrude blend is tarsands crude that has been through an upgrader to remove contaminants, including sulfur, and makes the oil easier to transport and refine. As of this writing, Syncrude was trading for $120.50/barrel, compared to $122.60/barrel for WTI and $105.30,/barrel for tarsands crude.

So it seems like oil companies that want to get the WTI price for their oil need more upgraders, not new pipelines. Why aren’t oil producers clamouring to build upgraders in Alberta then? Well, perhaps, it is because that actually creates more jobs (likely unionized) than building a pipeline, which creates very few jobs after the construction phase.

For the oil companies, there is more profit to be made from exporting unrefined oil to jurisdictions with low wages and lower environmental standards than in creating jobs here in Canada.

At this point you might be asking: But if Canada has such great environmental laws, doesn’t that make the tarsands cleaner or more ethical than other forms of oil? Sadly, this argument doesn’t hold water, either. Tarsands is much harder to extract and takes more energy to get out of the ground than conventional oil, and as a result, its carbon footprint is much larger. The Canadian oil industry has made a lot of noise about the incremental gains it has made to reduce its carbon intensity, but even with this limited progress, tarsands oil still emits 70 per cent more climate pollution per barrel produced than the global average.

Additionally, the tarsands leave behind a massive toxic legacy. Today, there are well over a trillion litres of toxic tarsands tailings in holding ponds in northern Alberta — and while this problem may not be new, it is headed towards an alarming decision point.

The federal government is currently considering new regulations that would allow the dumping of treated tarsands tailings directly into the Athabasca River, which would not only impact Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park and a World Heritage Site, it also puts the drinking water of downstream Indigenous communities at risk. That is not ethical, and it definitely isn't green.

Opinion: The tarsands is a high-carbon, high-cost source of oil, and in a world where we take climate change seriously, this is going to be amongst the first sources of oil to be phased out, writes @svenbiggs. #TransMountain #cdnpoli #StopTMX

It is time to be honest with Canadians: the tarsands is a high-carbon, high-cost source of oil, and in a world where we take climate change seriously, this is going to be amongst the first sources of oil to be phased out. You don’t have to take my word for it. The International Energy Agency, the United Nations Environment Program and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all said that we must stop building these kinds of projects now if we want to have any kind of chance at avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Not only do we not need another pipeline, it is actually a roadblock to progress by being yet another massive subsidy to an industry that is Canada's largest and fastest-growing source of emissions. All of this is happening at a time when our government needs to be investing in the transition to a more diverse, sustainable economy.

Now is not the moment to be spending billions more of taxpayers’ money on Trans Mountain. It's time to admit this is a pipeline that just doesn’t have a reason to exist anymore.

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"tarsands oil still emits 70 per cent more climate pollution per barrel produced than the global average"

As one study after another shows, Canada's oil & gas industry grossly under-reports its emissions (of all types). The industry's intensity and total emissions stats are fictional.

In recent years, nominal oilsands emissions intensity has decreased in part because a smaller share of bitumen is being upgraded at home in favor of more raw dilbit exports. This simply transfers emissions to U.S. refineries. An accounting maneuver. As long as Canadian crude exports rise, this trend will continue. CAPP and oil-soaked politicians will continue to greenwash the industry's abysmal record on emissions.

Hey Geoffrey, I 100% agree. As a side note, the word is favour, not favor, here in Canada :)


I believe it was the Natural Resources Canada website that iterated 60% of the emissions from every barrel of unconventional and expensive tar sands bitumen mined and piped is released under the processing stage in Alberta. The remaining 40% is emitted when it's burned. Conventional oil is the inverse, and in some cases pumping and shipping it accounts for less than 25% of total emissions, and the majority is released when combusted by consumers.

Both conventional and unconventional oil are subject not just to unstable world price fluctuations, but to demand variations too. When the price is high, people shift to efficiency and alternatives like transit and EVs. Therefore rests the best course of action to bring down emissions would be to head toward 'demand destruction' (an economic term) with subsidizing and building alternatives and efficiency measures.

Today we saw one gas station in Burnaby, BC, with a posted price of $2.14.9 for regular gas. The station is smack in the middle of Brentwood, a high density transit oriented development, with a high-capacity rapid transit SkyTrain station just across the street. A little oil demand destruction shouldn't be too hard there.

Alex, do you have a link to NRCan's info re the upstream/downstream split of emissions for oilsands crude vs conventional oil?

I just checked NRCan's Energy Fact Book 2021-2022, but found nothing.
Remarkably, NRCan admits to the accounting maneuver cited above:
"From 2000 to 2019, the emission intensity of oil sands operations dropped by about 33% as a result of technological and efficiency improvements, fewer venting emissions and REDUCTIONS IN THE PERCENTAGE OF CRUDE BITUMEN BEING UPGRADED to synthetic crude oil."

In 2012, Harper's Environment Minister Peter Kent conceded the point:
"Oilsands cut emissions by transferring pollution to other industries: Kent" (Postmedia News May 21, 2012)
"Transfers help oilsands reduce emissions"
"Some reductions in greenhouse gas emissions per barrel from oilsands facilities over the past 20 years have been achieved by new technologies as well as the transfer of some activities and their pollution to other industries, Environment Minister Peter Kent said in a statement tabled last week in Parliament.
"…'This reduction is due to technological innovation and equipment turnover, increased reliability across operations and the AVOIDANCE OF UPGRADING EMISSIONS BY EXPORTING MORE CRUDE BITUMEN,' said Kent's statement."

So part of the vaunted reduction in emissions intensity is not real, but a mere sleight of hand by transferring Alberta's upgrading emissions to foreign upgraders and refineries.

Thanks to the NO editors for publishing this informative rebuttal.

Though the BC government was opposed to TMX and lost a court case against the project, BC needs to be aware that cancelling TMX will not decrease dependency on the existing and very old TM pipe. BC has to seriously ramp up its Clean Energy BC program and electrify the provincial economy a lot quicker. One rupture in the existing deteriorating pipe will create the Putin Effect: A sudden constriction of the flow of oil products to BC's transportation sector that is 100% dependent on it.

BC Hydro MUST stop playing games and come to terms with the fact it will be required to triple its electricity output within 10-15 years. This means it has to drop its plans to decrease its net metering credit by 60% and become accommodating of thousands of solar roofs and First Nations and other organizations that are destined to propose large scale solar power farms and both offshore and onshore wind projects, all conveniently built using third party money. It needs to also consider building its own pilot geothermal and tidal power facilities without relying on unpredictable federal funding.

There is no other way out of our dependency pickle that avoids the risk of supply disruption to aging fossil fuel infrastructure short of approving TMX for domestic consumption, only to reinforce our dependency further. What kind of climate policy us that?