Straight talk from Alberta on GHG emissions and oil

The Edmonton-based Parkland Institute this week released a timely reality check that most of Canada’s politicians and media will likely try to ignore. The leftish think tank based at the University of Alberta stated bluntly that reducing greenhouse gas emissions while growing the oil and gas sector is like wanting to “have your cake and eat it too.”

Parkland’s report http://www.parklandinstitute.ca/ is written by David Hughes, described as an earth scientist who has studied the energy resources of Canada and the United States for more than four decades, including 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada. He argues that to meet even the modest goals inherited from the Harper government (30% below 2005 GHG levels by 2030) while continuing with plans to develop Liquefied Natural Gas in Northern British Columbia and Alberta’s oil sands would require severe reductions elsewhere in the economy, reductions that would be “near impossible without severe economic consequences.”

Although this is not an entirely new argument (for example, see Observer, March 21) David Hughes’ study provides much-needed detail. He presents several possible scenarios to estimate the scope of cuts that would be required from other sectors – homes, offices, automobiles, farms, factories etc. – to continue oil and gas development as usual while meeting the minimum GHG cuts Canada agreed to last December at the Paris climate extravaganza.

The scenario requiring the biggest cuts would be one in which the BC government gets its hoped-for five LNG export plants and the National Energy Board’s projection of a doubling of oil sands production comes about. That situation would result in emissions from the oil and gas sector going up by over 30% while emissions from the rest of the economy would have to drop 59% to meet the minimum Paris commitment.

The best case oil and gas development scenario – only one LNG export plant in BC and just a 45% increase in oil sands production and emissions as a result of the Notley government’s cap on GHG emissions from the oil sands – is somewhat better, but not by much. In that case, a 47% reduction in emissions from the rest of the economy would be required.

Rethink needed

“It would be very difficult to reduce emissions outside the oil and gas sector by between 47 and 59 per cent below 2014 levels by 2030,” Hughes writes. “Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada could realistically meet its Paris commitments without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development.”

One reason why lowering emissions outside the oil and gas sector will be so difficult is that much of the low-hanging fruit – electricity generated with fossil fuels – has already been picked. Even a completely green electricity system would cut overall emissions by only 11%, according to the report. At the same time, emission reduction from transportation and residential and commercial buildings requires lead times too long to have significant impact on the 2030 target.

The other possibility for a large drop in emissions would be through industrial collapse, such as happened in Eastern Europe 25 years ago and has recently occurred to a lesser extent in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Since few would want to pin their hopes for GHG emission cuts on economic collapse, rethinking plans for oil and gas development seems like a much better idea. In this regard, the Parkland paper provides some interesting food for thought.

One morsel, if taken seriously, would do much to lower the temperature on the red hot political debate over pipelines. Hughes argues that if Alberta sticks to its commitment to hold emissions from the oil sands at 100 megatonnes(mt), new pipeline capacity will not be needed. The 45% increase in oil sands production allowed under the Notley government’s GHG cap can reach markets through existing pipelines and rail connections. (Oh happy day. Maybe politicians and the media can stop hyperventilating about pipelines whether it’s Energy East, Kinder Morgan or Northern Gateway).

Focus on transition

The Parkland report disputes another piece of conventional wisdom from the pipeline lobby, the idea that landlocked Alberta needs a pipeline to tidewater in order to get the world price for its oil. That was the case a while ago, caused mainly by a glut of oil in the U.S. But now that the Americans are exporting oil and reducing the glut, bitumen from the oil sands is getting closer to the world price.

Hughes also challenges the notion that the country’s economic prosperity depends upon oil sands development, arguing that lower global oil prices makes new oil sands production uneconomic. But he adds: “Even if the price of oil wasn’t a barrier, the argument that Canada can build new pipelines to meet expanded oil production while also reaching its targets under the Paris Agreement is a ‘have your cake and eat it too’ argument.

“If Canada is to have any hope of meeting its Paris commitment, the aggressive oil and gas growth ambitions of the Alberta and BC governments will have to be reconsidered and reduced, as there simply isn’t the capacity in the rest of the economy to provide the emission reductions committed to by 2030. Governments would serve the public much better—especially the workers and communities whose economic hopes currently hinge on a substantially expanded oil and gas sector—by planning for the shifts in energy development that are necessary to meet their climate change commitments.” Amen.

 

Footnotes: It is surely coincidental that the Parkland Institute ‘s report came out the same week that Ontario announced, with great fanfare, details of how it hopes to meet its targets for GHG reductions. If Ontario’s $8.3 billion plan works, some 65 mt of greenhouse gases will be cut – economy-wide -by 2030, offsetting much of the increase that would result from the “best case” scenario described in the Parkland report. This would still leave the country some 140 mt over the 2030 target, but it’s a start. Perhaps the (non oil and gas) economy outside Ontario can somehow find those reductions over the next 14 years. Maybe with Ontario and Premier Kathleen Wynne leading the way the oil and gas partisans will show those Parkland eggheads that Canada can have its cake and eat it too. That would be ironic. When the Ontario Premier visited Edmonton week before last the knuckle-dragging, petro-loving Wildrose party (currently leading in the polls) attacked Wynne and her government’s GHG reduction policies as she sat in the visitors’ gallery of the legislature. Wildrose ridicule Wynne .

And speaking of over-reacting to visitors from Ontario, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, received national media attention at the federal NDP convention in Edmonton in April for his colourful attack on the sponsors of the Leap Manifesto. (Observer April 15) It was a pleasant surprise to discover on Parkland’s website that the very same Gil McGowan is a member of the Institute’s Board of Directors.

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About Richard Starr

RICHARD STARR has had careers as a journalist, public servant, broadcaster, political staffer and freelance policy adviser. He is author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, appearing in everything from Atlantic Insight to Atlantic Progress. A lifelong student of Maritime history, Starr is married to playwright and former MP Wendy Lill. They live in Dartmouth.
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