Despite Stephen Harper’s rhetoric, Canada’s fossil fuel resources are limited – which is precisely why we need a comprehensive energy policy.
“The oil sands are of enormous importance to the future prosperity of the country and by their sheer size the security of all Western countries. We need a plan to reduce their vulnerability without sacrificing their vitality.” – from “Energy and Environment: A Superpower in Need of Super Powers,” Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked Age
The “energy superpower” mindset of Harper and the authors of the Open Canada report show they are not in sync with the geological realities of current energy production and consumption trends.
A couple of fundamental facts underlie any discussion of energy in Canada: first, Canadians are among the highest per capita consumers of energy in the world, exceeding even Americans, and currently consume five times the world average. More than 80 per cent of this consumption is fossil fuels. Cheap energy makes the Canadian lifestyle possible. Second, Canada has been liquidating its inheritance of non-renewable fossil fuels as fast as possible in the name of economic growth. There are currently few restrictions on the liquidation of these one-time resources that underpin Canadian energy security.
The Open Canada report advocates expanding market options to speed the liquidation of Canada’s fossil fuels. These include the construction of the Enbridge Gateway pipeline for oil sands exports from Edmonton to Kitimat on the West Coast, as well as the construction of an LNG export terminal in Kitimat.
These recommendations are rooted in the desire to keep Canadian oil flowing should our southern neighbours balk at the carbon emissions created in producing it, and provide alternative markets for Canadian gas should the hype surrounding shale gas pan out. In reality, Canada has nothing to worry about. Mexico is the number three oil exporter to the U.S., behind Canada and Saudi Arabia; its Cantarell field, once the second-largest producer in the world, is collapsing, and the country may soon become an oil importer. Compared to the majority of oil suppliers to the U.S., Canada is a model of political stability and reliability. When push comes to shove, the Americans, being the greatest oil addicts on earth, will take our oil gladly as they will have few alternatives. As for exporting gas as LNG, one wonders where it will come from given that Canadian production is now falling at nearly nine per cent per year.
The Open Canada report advocates a “National Green Energy Policy” for Canada, which involves, among other things, re-branding the oil sands through technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS). Trying to mitigate the oil sands’ massive carbon footprint with CCS would be futile, but that’s the subject of another analysis. Moreover, the ecological impact of the oil sands is much maligned after recovering a mere four billion barrels of oil over the past 40 years—not the mess that will be left after extracting the 27 billion barrels “under active development” or the purported 174 billion barrels ultimately available.
An alternative focus for the Open Canada report should have been a “National Green Energy Security Policy” for Canada, recognizing the one-time nature of fossil fuel endowment and its importance for future Canadian energy security. As well, fossil fuels will be needed to build the infrastructure required for a much lower energy footprint, which is the only way forward to a more sustainable future.
The Open Canada report does, however, make some sensible recommendations, which include imposing a carbon tax, which will provide an incentive to reduce consumption; creating a “Clean Energy Fund” from the revenues of the carbon tax to finance lower impact and alternative energy technologies; and recognizing the need to reduce the rate of expansion in the oil sands – these resources are not going away, and they will likely be needed for the foreseeable future.
There is really only one sustainable way to reduce emissions from non-renewable fossil fuels and promote energy security: figuring out every conceivable way not to burn them in the first place. This will involve recognizing the finite nature of non-renewable energy resources and their crucial importance to our current well-being; understanding that economic growth is not worth liquidating as fast as possible our onetime heritage of these resources; and developing a policy to restrict the plundering of Canada’s intrinsic non-renewable energy resources.
Energy is a commodity unlike any other, as it underpins all aspects of modern industrial society. The finite nature of non-renewable fuels demands a comprehensive plan to manage the power-down that will occur, whether we like it or not. Canada needs a comprehensive strategy to manage this transition. Although the Open Canada report provides some sensible recommendations, it fails to recognize the longer-term trajectory we are on. We ignore these issues at our peril.