Continued reliance on oil & gas is not Canada’s best choice, economically or environmentally.
Despite Canada’s abundance of oil and gas reserves, transitioning our economy away from the industry is the only way to address the climate crisis.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated carbon budgets—how much carbon dioxide we have left before our planet warms beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. They ranged from 258-570 gross tonnage (Gt).
Rising temperature represents devastating consequences, from reduction of freshwater availability and crop yields to dying reefs and melting glaciers. This is environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. This was recognized at the Paris Agreement, where signatory countries made commitments to try to stay below 1.5 degrees, and not exceed a rise of 2 degrees.
Fossil fuel companies threaten this goal. Global fossil fuel reserves are somewhere between 2,734 and 5,385 Gt. We cannot afford to burn this much under the IPCC’s budgets.
It doesn’t matter who owns the reserves, the quality of the oil, or the labour and environmental regulations record of the country the oil is in. It isn’t sustainable to continue burning fossil fuels at our current rate if we would like to preserve the planet and the human race.
Canada needs to transition away from fossil fuels. Although this transition can negatively affect the livelihood of many Canadian citizens, we need to find a solution which works for the long term.
To ignore a problem to keep life easy for a little bit longer, instead of confronting the challenge head-on, is poor leadership and un-Canadian, as it’s not in the best interests of our country over the longer term.
Despite this, several arguments have emerged in Canada to promote the continuation of business-as-usual operations in the oil sands.
This article seeks to directly address the arguments stalling transition, starting with the notion that Canadian oil is the cleanest oil in the world.
The most concrete evidence to support this is in a study published by journal Science which discusses Canada’s flaring standards. It suggests Canada’s gas flaring standards are far better than most countries, so if all nations implemented our measures, emissions would drop.
This is not the whole picture.
Flaring is when natural gas, a by-product of oil production, is burned off for safety reasons. But flaring isn’t the only way excess gas is managed. Venting, where gas is released unburned as methane (a gas with a global warming potential of 28-36 units over 100 years), is also common practice. According to the Pembina Institute, all around the world, including Alberta, methane emissions are vastly underreported.
Methane is challenging to measure and monitor, so enforcement of venting standards is very difficult. We don’t know how much emissions venting is creating, and we certainly can’t compare our venting processes to other oil-producing countries.
Aside from flaring and venting, it’s important to see the whole picture. Measuring oil on a “well to wheels” standard—from the minute it’s pumped to the instant it’s combusted in the engine of your car—Canadian oil does not create less emissions than other countries. It’s estimated by the United States Congressional Research Service that Canadian oil emits approximately “17 per cent more greenhouse gases on a life-cycle basis than […] the US, [and] 9 to 19 per cent more than from the Middle East”
This is partially due to the makeup of Canadian oil: its high concentration of sulphur makes it more energy-intensive to refine into a usable product. Although it can be argued Canadian oil is more carbon-intensive, where you get more potential product per barrel, the additional resources needed to refine it negate this.
Even if we could pull Canadian oil out of the ground and refine it with zero emissions, the majority of the emissions would still exist at the burning stage, as only 20 to 30 per cent of total emissions are estimated to be emitted through production, refinement and transportation. Regardless of how clean you make oil extraction, oil is oil.
Rhetoric also prevails in the idea that oil and gas is irreplaceable in Canada.
Although oil and gas contribute to Canada’s economy and employ a considerable number of Canadians, this could change in an instant. In the 1870s, carriage-making was a dominant feature of the Canadian economy. Over time, that faded and was replaced by another industry, just as has happened countless times across history.
We must stop supporting a dying business and begin attracting new industries that will lead us into the 21st century—like renewable energy production, an industry with huge unrecognized potential.
Large oil and gas companies have convinced Canadians they can use their resources to drive environmental change while also driving the economy. Though some of Canada’s largest energy companies are spearheading environmental sustainability projects, this merely hides their shortcomings and negative environmental footprints.
Take Suncor and Enbridge, for example, which are two of Canada’s biggest oil companies. Over the past decade, both have increased their investment in sustainability projects. However, they’ve failed to account for the long-term issues staining their environmental resumes.
For Suncor, this means dealing with millions of gallons of toxic sludge. Currently, Suncor uses an unproven method of treatment known as water capping, a process described by the Pembina Insitute as “[putting] more water on top of [the tailings waste] and [walking] away and [hoping] nature fixes it.”
In the case of Enbridge, in 2018, Greenpeace published a report that stated Enbridge and its subsidiaries averaged out to one pipeline incident every 20 days. In the last two years alone, they’ve experienced pipeline explosions in Kentucky, Ohio, and British Columbia.
Green investments are a small part of the balance sheets of oil giants. Collectively, big oil and gas spend approximately 1 per cent of their balance sheet on renewables.
The impact of green investment by these companies is negated as they simultaneously pursue projects which undermine any environmental gains. Companies cannot actively search for new oil deposits or look to increase production and also be clean energy leaders.
Another argument is that it’s better to use Canadian oil than that of countries with inferior human rights records.
But it’s not about where the oil and gas come from. The fact that fossil fuels are being burned in the first place is the issue, creating the potential to take us above the 2-degree threshold. The consequences of climate change are also not exactly a recipe for peace and calm.
Finally, it’s important to remember that a lot of oil and gas propaganda is out there. A Yale study estimates the fossil fuel industry outspends environmental groups at a rate of 10:1 on lobbying efforts for legislation in the US. Popular pro-oil rhetoric is shaped by oil giants, people who have a vested interest in ensuring we continue to burn fossil fuels regardless of long-term unsustainability.
We know the truth, and it’s time we stand up for it.
We need to start thinking about where we want our country to be in 10 years and 50 years, not in six months or by the next federal election.
Nick Lorraway is a fourth-year economics student and president of QBACC. Angus Merry is a third-year history student and divestment researcher for QBACC.