Oilsands, energy security and climate calamity

Blog - Nov. 25, 2010 - By Simon Dyer

On Thursday, I had the chance to present to the Federal Standing Committee on Natural Resources in Ottawa. This was a great opportunity to speak to members of parliament from all parties about oilsands and energy security.

You hear the terms oilsands and energy security tossed around together frequently, but what does it mean? Contrary to what you may have heard, energy security is not simply a function of which country the energy comes from.

The International Energy Agency defines energy security as "the uninterrupted physical availability of energy at a price which is affordable, while respecting environment concerns."

Therefore the economic costs versus benefits of energy and the environmental impacts of its production and consumption are fundamental components of energy security.

There is no doubt Canada's oilsands are a major resource, but there are environmental and economic impacts that undermine the contribution of this resource to Canada's, North America's or the world's energy security.oilsands mining

Whether Canada's abundant energy supply is supplying Canada or foreign nations, energy security for our customers means providing energy in a way that meets our global obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while protecting Canadians from environmental impacts at home.

The world is aggressively seeking cleaner sources of energy, and we should not take our historic position as a supplier of fossil fuels for granted, especially when it is evident that Canada is not doing its fair share to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and is failing to adequately enforce the law to protect the environment in oilsands developments.

Coincidentally, as we were sitting in the Ottawa hearings the journal Nature published an editorial that concluded: "No form of mining is clean. But the fast development of the tar sands, combined with weak regulation and a lack of effective watchdogs, have made them an environmentalist's nightmare."

I argued to the federal standing committee that Canada's reputation as a responsible supplier of energy is being damaged by its poor performance on the oilsands. The oilsands do not have a public relations problem, they have an environmental impacts problem.  

If Canada and Alberta continue to focus on public relations and neglect to enforce existing laws and regulations to protect the environment, the federal government will be exposed to continued legal challenges, which leaves the industry vulnerable to tougher environmental restrictions in the international marketplace.

I also shared with the committee our recent report Duty Calls: Federal Responsibility in the Oilsands, which outlines the laws mandating federal involvement in the environmental management of the oilsands and explores what's at stake if Ottawa continues to neglect this responsibility.

Government's math doesn't add up

A key finding of the report is that the government's math on carbon emissions from the oilsands doesn't add up. On the one hand, the federal Conservative government signs on to the Copenhagen Accord and tells the world Canada will reduce carbon pollution by 17 per cent within 10 years. On the other hand Canada is planning to blow that number out of the water by increasing oilsands production and carbon pollution by 3.5 times in 10 years.

oilsands production

Alas, the folks in the federal government aren't the only ones who do curious things with numbers. We tried to refute another such instance in these federal hearings — this time a misleading claim made by oilsands industry representatives and Natural Resources Canada.

The proponents of oilsands have a habit of placing development of the oilsands in the context of future global energy demand as assessed by the International Energy Agency. But there is a tendency to misuse the agency's analysis, as in the testimony of Mark Corey, assistant deputy minister for the Department of Natural Resources, when he said, "global energy will increase by 1.5 per cent per year until 2030, which would be an overall increase of 40 per cent."

He also said, "Oil, gas, and coal are projected to remain the dominant source of primary energy worldwide, and unconventional oil will play a growing role in the world oil supply through to about 2035."

But this is based on a misuse of statistics from the International Energy Agency. The numbers assume business as usual and by the agency's own admission are not a projection, but a reference point.

In fact, the agency suggests the world demand for oil could be around 20 million barrels a day less than this worst case scenario by 2030 — depending on which policies governments choose to implement.

The agency goes on to say that if governments do nothing to clean up our energy supply in the next 20 years: "The CO2 concentration implied by the Reference Scenario would result in the global average temperature rising by 6 C. This would lead to massive climate change and irreparable damage to the planet." (Source: WEO 2009, p.44).

In other words, oilsands proponents seem to be planning for a bleak world that utterly fails to deal with climate change, but maximizes the development of oil and oilsands.

The scenario that the companies and federal government are promoting stands in sharp contradiction to the Copenhagen Accord, which Canada has endorsed and which sets the objective of limiting the increase in global temperature to 2 C.

It's time to be honest about plans to dramatically increase oilsands development and Canada's promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The government can pretend this very serious contradiction does not exist, but there is no credible plan or even any apparent effort to reduce emissions.

There can be no energy security without climate security.

What this illustrates is that Canada needs a national energy strategy that looks after the environment and demonstrates how oilsands fits into a clean energy transition.

Simon Dyer

Simon is the deputy executive director of the Pembina Institute and regional director for Alberta. He is based in Edmonton.


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