Opinion: Can Canada Transition to a Low Carbon Economy through Expanded Crude Oil Infrastructure?

"The country is burdened by a chronic slow-growth economy, which is stoking unemployment and stifling middle-class progress. Alberta is on its knees as a result of occurrences – biblical fires and collapsed energy prices – beyond its control. Our export-driven economy pivots on getting our No. 1 resource, oil and gas, to market. Putting in place appropriate infrastructure to do that is a no-brainer."
Lawrence Martin, "On energy, PM needs to lead with his head, not heart - The Globe and Mail"

Reading over Lawrence Martin's article in the Globe and Mail, we see the perspective than many Canadians hold which is that Canada is reliant on a single commodity to run its economy. That commodity is crude oil. What he is not addressing is that countries around the world are also trying to focus on the harmful effects of climate change. As a country that is heavily reliant on trade, it must prepare for a future where renewable energy will become an increasingly larger part of the energy system.

By focusing exclusively on the past, we are not transitioning to the future.

Building infrastructure for 20 to 30 years into the future that supports the expansion of fossil fuels does not prepare us for the economy of tomorrow. It simply is an incorrect admission that Canadians cannot innovate and change the direction of the economy. We are effectively stuck and unable or unwilling to generate new ideas. By holding regulatory reviews that address both the existing pipeline infrastructure in the country and new projects, many issues around C02 emissions could be addressed. Currently, regulatory reviews are restricted to C02 emissions that are largely the result of the construction of the actual project. These reviews do not address rising emissions at source or from downstream activities. They also do not address how additional infrastructure may cause rises in fossil fuel (eg. bitumen, heavy crude ) production and therefore rises in emissions.

The constant focus on pipelines by industry and politicians mean that we no longer look at renewable energy systems that could power our future. Canada has amongst the greatest potential for renewable energy than most other countries in the world. In fact Canada could become a renewable energy superpower if it chose to do so. The future will indeed have both fossil fuels and renewable energy, but currently, in Canada we only see a reliance on fossil fuel expansion. Is it possible that approving pipelines that will increase production by 1.7 million barrels per day is the solution to climate change? Is it possible that we need both wind turbines and pipelines? Is it possible that we must choose the economy over the environment on a regular basis for prosperity?

Regarding wind turbines and pipelines, Canada could indeed do both. Both are economic activities and both produce jobs. The problem is that the subsidies provided to the fossil fuel industry means that renewable energy projects are less competitive economically. Another question is whether Canada signs documents like the Paris Accord as a way of selling more oil by appearing that it is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I would like to think not. As a country are we setting ourselves up for failure by not addressing rising emissions in the country or assuming that technological innovation will lower emissions.

My prediction is that four years from now Canada's greenhouse gas emissions may be even higher than they are today as a result of approving pipeline projects. There may also be a backlash against renewable energy projects for being too costly and being a waste of taxpayer funds. This is in spite of the fact that the fossil fuel industry receives substantial sums of money in terms of subsidization.

Canada has signed the Paris Accord which requires actions on its part to reduce carbon emissions. It also attends G20 and other conferences and agrees that reducing carbon is a goal for Canada and Canadians. Domestically, it cannot say one thing and internationally say something entirely different.

I am not hopeful but rather realistic. Canada, because of its large reserve of bitumen deposits in northern Alberta, has become highly dependant on exploiting that resource. There may not be the leadership required at the federal government level to transition the economy towards something more sustainable and we may have to rely on other countries to assume that leadership role.

Additionally, as a Canadian who believes in sustainable economic activity, I hope that we can move past the very negative commentary that has marked the past three years on issues of pipelines, renewable energy and climate change. After December, when the federal government has committed to make a decision on one of the two major pipeline proposals, Trans Mountain, we will finally see where it stands on this important issue. This is ultimately good for the country as we should see where our elected representatives stand on issues.

Why is this happening in Canada? Canada has the third largest network of pipelines in the world following the United States and Russia. As a result it will likely remain an issue even past December and especially for people who believe that Canada should transition towards a low carbon future both in word and action.