Why you should care about the oilsands

August 8, 2011
Published in The Huffington Post Canada (Aug. 8, 2011), The Rutland Herald (Aug. 24, 2011)

Anyone who works on climate change policy in Canada, like I do, ends up talking about the oil sands on a daily basis. The massive development reshaping parts of Alberta's landscape attracts criticism like no other project in Canada, and those concerns don't stop at our borders.

But as its public profile has grown, some have argued that the oil sands sector is being unfairly singled out. After all, the oilsands now account for less than seven per cent of Canada's total greenhouse gas pollution — far less than the emissions from coal, transportation or heating our homes.

So we're sometimes asked to justify why we put so much emphasis on one relatively small piece of Canada's emissions puzzle.

New analysis released by Environment Canada last month makes it crystal clear why the oil sands matter so much.

In late July, the department published a document called Canada's Emissions Trends, which provides an up-to-date projection of greenhouse gas pollution under a "business as usual" scenario — in other words, our emissions future unless governments take stronger action than they have to date. And the picture it paints of where oil sands emissions are heading is not pretty.

Under "business as usual," emissions from the oil sands will triple from 2005 to 2020. That represents 12 per cent of Canada's projected national emissions in 2020, more than the total for any province except Alberta and Ontario.

In other parts of Canada's economy, emissions are expected to grow much more slowly or even to drop. The oil sands are headed in exactly the opposite direction. The sector is projected to be responsible for 388 per cent of the increase in Canada's industrial emissions, according to a Pembina report based on an Environment Canada study.

If that growth does take place, it's going to make hitting Canada's 2020 emissions target very, very difficult. But the oil sands' influence doesn't end with their direct impact on Canada's emissions.

Over the years I've worked on climate policy, I've become more and more concerned about the disproportionate weight that this small but mighty slice of Canada's emissions seems to be exerting on our government's overall approach to global warming.

As a thought experiment, let's assume that Prime Minister Harper's government wants to see the oil sands continue their rapid growth indefinitely. What would that mean for his climate policy?

For starters, he would need an approach that allows for increases in emissions from the oil sands, at a time when climate science tells us that overall greenhouse gas emissions from countries like Canada need to be dropping quickly.

Pity the poor federal environment minister who has to convince Québec's manufacturing sector or B.C.'s forestry sector that they need to make deeper cuts to allow the oil sands to pollute more. Even the most determined environment minister might retreat from that prospect.

So the likely political outcome becomes that that the oil sands' "need" for policies soft enough to allow for increased emissions sets the bar — a very low one — for the rest of Canada's industrial sectors.

And the oil sands' long shadow isn't just visible in Canada's domestic climate policy; instead, it has crept across our borders to shape foreign policy too.

The emissions produced by separating oil from sand make the resulting product 'dirtier,' in greenhouse gas pollution terms, than conventional oil produced in North America. So if growth in the oil sands is your goal, policies that require other countries to choose cleaner fuels are not environmental victories but threats to the industry's export market.

I wish this were only a hypothetical risk, but it's not. Our organization and others have documented attempts by Canadian officials to undermine cleaner fuels policies in the U.S. and the EU.

Imagine if we had put our eggs into a different basket. Instead of pouring billions and billons of dollars into tar, picture a Canada that had invested in engineering and manufacturing solar panels.

Rather than fearing the green choices other countries made, we would celebrate them. The more jurisdictions decided to tackle climate change, the more potential customers our solar panel makers would have to sell to, and the more jobs we would create.

Recent choices by the federal government suggest that it sees oil, not clean technology, as Canada's economic ace in the hole. That would explain Ottawa's decisions to support carbon capture and storage technology — which aims at allowing fossil fuel production to reduce its emissions — while cutting back on federal investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

But by increasing our economy's reliance on the oilsands, we're essentially making a bet that the rest of the world won't take meaningful action on climate change.

If that bet proves to be correct, we can keep on selling oil to our American neighbours (and perhaps to other markets) as long as we want, and the only risks we face are the potentially devastating consequences of global warming itself — that, and continuing a Canadian tradition of never reaching our emission targets.

But if we bet on the wrong side, and other countries do make the shift to clean energy, the pitfalls are potentially massive. All the capital that companies have sunk into the oil sands would suddenly look like a dead end. Rather than selling China our oil, we could face a future where we're buying their state-of-the-art electric cars.

In Canada, rising concern about climate change over the last two decades has coincided with a massive expansion of development in the oil sands. It's not hard to make the case that the development of the oil sands has stunted and disfigured Canada's approach to climate change.

If our governments wanted to change that assessment, the bottom line is really simple: we can't keep letting one sector's overheated growth steal the show.

Climate policy has to be designed to meet Canada's greenhouse gas targets in the smartest and most efficient way possible — and that means all of us, oil sands included, have to do our share.