In December 1974, a soldier named Teruo Nakamura stationed on Morotai Island in Indonesia became the last so-called “holdout” from the Japanese Imperial Army to surrender, nearly 30 years after his own country agreed to terms that ended the Second World War. We’re not there yet when it comes to the fight over pipelines in Canada, but there are some high-profile holdouts who don’t seem to have realized that it, too, is effectively over. Chief among them is David Knight Legg, the CEO of Invest Alberta and the chair of Jason Kenney’s ESG working group, who appeared more than willing to go to war against reality in a recent op-ed he co-wrote for the National Post that makes the case for building the Northern Gateway pipeline.
That project has been dead for the better part of a decade now, and it hasn’t shown anything resembling a pulse since then. But like the parrot in the famous sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, apparently Northern Gateway is just resting. And according to Knight Legg and his co-author, Calgary oil and gas financier Adam Waterous, the thing that’s going to wake it up is the combination of growing oil demand in Asia and declining oil production in the United States.
“This is a perfect moment to demonstrate to the world that Canada has the will and the capacity to build our own sovereign infrastructure to access markets and defend our economic and strategic interests globally,” they write.
That might have been true in 2011, when global demand for oil looked like it would continue to grow for decades and climate concerns hadn’t yet moved to the front burner of our shared political stove. But in 2021, the idea of building a major new export pipeline for Canadian crude feels a bit like pitching the construction of a new fax machine factory. In the International Energy Agency’s base case, peak oil demand occurs around the end of the decade, while its Sustainable Development Scenario (the one that aligns with the Paris Accord targets) has it peaking far sooner — almost certainly before a new pipeline could even be approved, much less built.
More importantly, perhaps, the idea of reviving Northern Gateway glosses over the enormous challenges associated with building that infrastructure on unceded territory, a lesson Alberta’s oil and gas industry has already learned the hard way. But not learning lessons seems to be a recurring theme here, given that Knight Legg and Waterous are busy peddling the same “ethical oil” argument that Ezra Levant and his various acolytes have pitched for years. “Canada leads global energy markets with the best environmental, social and governance practices in the world,” they write, totally ignoring both the existence of countries like Norway and the United Kingdom and Alberta’s huge inventory of abandoned wells and unremediated tailings ponds.
Knight Legg, who is paid nearly $250,000 a year by Alberta’s taxpayers for his role as head of Invest Alberta, is no stranger to Levant. In a March appearance on Ryan Jespersen’s show, he said: "I appreciate what Ezra (Levant) was trying to do by asserting the ethics of Canadian oil — because he's right."
Then, he took Levant’s familiar (and failed) argument to a new level in his recent op-ed, suggesting Alberta’s “cleaner and leaner production is a double threat to state dictatorships that control 80 per cent of global reserves and place far lower value on ethical production commitments.” That’s right — Saudi Arabia, which can produce oil for less than $10 per barrel, is quaking in its boots because of Canada’s ethics-infused barrels.
And while Knight Legg and Waterous write that “the average Canadian barrel is now cleaner than a barrel from California,” that’s damning with the faintest praise. California’s oil, which comes primarily from old and depleted fields, is the dirtiest in the United States and is one of the highest carbon sources of oil on Earth. It’s also in terminal decline. Production has fallen from its February 1986 peak of 1.1 million barrels per day to just 364,000 in January.
In Canada, on the other hand, production continues to grow, and while the per-barrel emissions on newer projects are definitely lower than they once were, they still have a long way to go.
Case in point: As the Canadian Energy Centre noted in an August 2020 post, “between 2011 and 2018, oilsands emissions intensity fell from 0.086 tonnes of CO2e per barrel to 0.067 tonnes.” But Equinor’s new Johan Sverdrup field in Norway, which came online a year later (and was the subject of a May 2020 fact sheet from the Canadian Energy Centre), produces nearly 500,000 barrels per day with associated upstream GHGs of just 0.67 kilograms per barrel — 1/100th.
None of this is likely to reach the intellectual island that people like David Knight Legg and the rest of Kenney’s government choose to live on. For them, it’s still 2011, when the solution to all of Alberta’s problems was the construction of more oil pipelines. Eventually, like the Japanese Imperial Army’s holdout soldiers, they’ll have to surrender to reality. But based on recent polls, which all seem to have the NDP with a commanding lead, Alberta voters might decide to take that into their own hands first.