PM IN OILSANDS FUROR
- 14 Jan 2017
- Calgary Herald
- CHRIS VARCOE Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist
PM IN OILSANDS FUROR
Global demand for oil is still growing and so is northern Alberta’s output
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sparked controversy at a town hall meeting in Peterborough, Ont., by suggesting Canada will work toward gradually phasing out Alberta’s oilsands. Canada’s oilsands turn 50 years old this year. Justin Trudeau says it’s time to start thinking about blowing out the candles.
Speaking Friday at a town hall forum in Peterborough, Ont., the prime minister was asked about his policies toward climate change in light of his government’s recent oil pipeline approvals.
Trudeau started out by saying he wants to ensure Canada can get its natural resources to markets.
Then he shifted gears to talk about the End Times for one of those resources: the oilsands.
I can’t decide if such talk is heroically honest or incredibly stupid, but I’m pretty sure I know which way most Albertans are leaning.
“You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy. We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out,” Trudeau said.
“We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time, and in the meantime, we have to manage that transition.”
The prime minister’s remarks were made in response to environmental criticism of his government giving the green light to the Trans Mountain expansion project.
The line will ship more oil from Alberta to the West Coast, and he’s had to repeatedly defend that decision during the past month.
The prime minister is correct that our resources must get to market.
And, at some point, oilsands production will slow down; the projects are long-life, but won’t last forever. Inevitably, the global transition away from fossil fuels will gain speed.
But the end of the oilsands is a long time into the future. I’m not sure what is gained by using such provocative language about the need for Canada to “phase out” the oilsands.
Then there’s his careless use of the word “need.”
This begs the question of when the prime minister will start mentioning the “need” to phase out automobiles made in Central Canada, or other essential economic sectors that are also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.
It didn’t take long for Alberta politicians to jump into the furor, with Wildrose Leader Brian Jean warning: “If Mr. Trudeau wants to shut down Alberta’s oilsands … he’ll have to go through me and four million Albertans first.”
Premier Rachel Notley even waded into the debate, releasing a video with soothing words that “we’re not going anywhere, anytime soon.”
But let’s bring some facts into this conversation.
At the Paris international climate talks, Canada pledged that by 2030, the country would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels.
Decarbonization is not a fad. Former prime minister Stephen Harper joined with other G7 country leaders less than two years ago and pledged to phase out fossil fuels by 2100.
The world is shifting toward more renewable energy sources and less carbon-intensive fuels.
However, our need for oil isn’t going away anytime soon.
According to the International Energy Agency, global demand for oil will keep growing until 2040, mainly because of the lack of easy alternatives to oil needed for road freight and aviation.
“The era of fossil fuels appears far from over,” the IEA said in October.
The oilsands remain one of the largest and most secure sources of crude in the world.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projects oilsands production will rise 850,000 barrels per day by 2021. By 2030, the region will generate 3.7 million barrels a day, up from about 2.4 million last year.
“Our oilsands are vast in size, and the speed at which technology is developing continually makes them more of a viable opportunity,” says CAPP president Tim McMillan.
Since commercial production in the oilsands began in 1967, output has climbed upward as the technology has improved. Kevin Birn, director of Canadian oilsands for IHS Energy, notes most oilsands mines are designed to last for at least 40 years, while thermal projects are built for a 25to 35-year time frame.
“We think it’s some point after 2030 that you’ll start to see projects that are 30 or 40 years old begin to near the end of their natural life,” he says. “That will start to act as a drag on growth.”
The real point in the debate is that through technology, innovation and conservation, emissions must drop in all sectors over time.
But talking about phasing out a vital industry in one province is reckless, divisive and unnecessary.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the oilsands — a resource that has created wealth for the entire country — it’d be wise for the prime minister to not be seen as welcoming its demise.