A fortune lies in Canada’s oil sands. Many voters want to leave it there.

Robbie Picard, founder of Oil Sands Strong, sits for a photograph at a diner in Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Sept. 24, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg Photo By Jason Franson. / The Washington Post
Robbie Picard, founder of Oil Sands Strong, sits for a photograph at a diner in Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Sept. 24, 2019.  Photo: Bloomberg Photo By Jason Franson.

At the Fish Place diner in Fort McMurray, booths are filled with oil workers in baseball caps and the parking lot is lined with pickup trucks sporting six-foot (1.8 meter) neon safety flags, a hallmark of the mining industry.

Fort McMurray is the regional hub for the oil sands that produce two-thirds of Canada’s crude, a status that puts the city carved out of Alberta’s wilderness at the heart of the Oct. 21 federal election.

Robbie Picard, who heads an oil-sands advocacy group, calls it “the most important election we’ve ever had.” Over a breakfast of eggs and cheese in the diner, Picard said that a second term for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would cause “anxiety, depression and despair” in the city. “I’m terrified for our future,” he said.

In a campaign that’s been uncharacteristically personal in tone for Canada, energy and the environment is arguably the key policy area that will decide the election-and most agree the outcome of the vote will in turn be crucial for Canada’s energy sector.

Not only will it determine the future of carbon taxes, pipeline approvals and environmental regulations, it’s also a referendum on a dispute central to the country’s identity: Is Canada a global oil superpower or is it a leader in fighting climate change?

Trudeau and his Liberal supporters argue that it can be both, using proceeds from its oil and gas to fund green-energy solutions. He says he has supported the industry more than his Conservative predecessor, spending C$4.5 billion ($3.5 billion) to save a key pipeline project from cancellation, taking flak from the environmental camp in the process.

But critics including his main challenger, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, hammer him for abandoning a pipeline through British Columbia, failing to push through another line to Canada’s east coast and passing a law that they say will make major energy projects impossible to approve. Trudeau’s comment at a town hall meeting in Ontario back in 2017 that the country needs to phase out the oil sands has added to the sense that it’s not just specific policies but the industry’s very existence that’s on the ballot.

“Do we want our energy industry to be a global player, or do we want our industry to go into hibernation and we’ll just slowly shut it down?” Derek Evans, chief executive officer of oil-sands producer MEG Energy Corp., said in an interview. “That’s the point we’re at.”

The source of the dilemma lies in the expanse of forests and marshes surrounding Fort McMurray. These lands contain the world’s third-largest crude reserves, but the sticky bitumen extracted needs to be transported to market, and that means building hugely contentious pipelines. At present, there just aren’t enough of them for an energy sector that accounts for a tenth of Canada’s economy and a fifth of its exports.

In recent years, rising production from the oil sands has strained against limited pipeline capacity, exacerbated by delays to projects like TC Energy Corp.’s Keystone XL. That has weighed on regional oil prices and prompted companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ConocoPhillips to sell off Canadian assets in a $30 billion-plus capital exodus.

A year ago, the pipeline pinch reached crisis proportions, sending Canadian heavy crude prices crashing below $15 a barrel and prompting Alberta’s government to intervene with mandated production cuts to stave off a full collapse. While prices have rebounded, the situation remains tenuous, hitting Alberta’s economy hard and inflaming opposition to Trudeau’s federal government.

The political predicament is encapsulated in the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries the heavy crude extracted near Fort McMurray about 715 miles (1,150 kilometers) westward to a Pacific port near Vancouver.

In 2013, then-owner Kinder Morgan of Houston won federal approval to triple the line’s capacity, promising to alleviate the bottlenecks and help Canadian crude reach new markets in Asia. But the proposal hit so much opposition-legal challenges, protests and a British Columbia government pledging to block it-that by last year Kinder was ready to abandon it.

Then, in a move that stunned the nation, Trudeau’s government swept in to buy it, vowing it would be built. Yet the purchase won Trudeau little support in deeply conservative Alberta, and it only hurt his standing with environmentalists, earning him the nickname “Justin Crudeau.” While opposition remains, construction on the project has begun.

Naomi Klein, the prominent Canadian writer and activist, said the purchase highlights the “utterly hypocritical” position Trudeau has taken since coming to power, allowing the oil sands to expand while claiming to make Canada a climate leader.

“What we need to be doing is investing the billions of dollars that the Trudeau government has been spending buying pipelines on rolling out renewable infrastructure,” she said in an interview. “We have not done that. We’ve wasted precious time.”

Trudeau’s energy policy thus risks alienating voters on both sides of a debate that is increasingly becoming a key dividing line across Canada. It’s a political reality that Scheer is playing upon, portraying his Conservative Party as a champion of the oil sector and pledging to remove the stricter environmental regulation brought in by Trudeau. With her party polling at a record, Green leader Elizabeth May also sees an opening.

Current polls suggest a close race, with Trudeau’s Liberals set to lose their majority. That raises the prospect of a minority Liberal government with the even more environmentally minded Green Party and New Democratic Party-“a nightmare” outcome for oil sands advocates like Picard, but arguably one in tune with voters in large parts of Canada. MORE

 

Opinion: Fossil-fuel workers ready to support energy transition


Lliam Hildebrand, is the executive director of Iron and Earth, an oilsands worker-led group that is calling for training and opportunities to work on renewable energy projects to assist the Alberta economy. File photo. SHAUGHN BUTTS / EDMONTON JOURNAL

Except for an isolated pocket of skeptics, there is now an almost universal acceptance that climate change is a global emergency that demands immediate and far-reaching action to defend our home and future generations. Yet in Canada we remain largely focused on how the crisis divides us rather than on the potential for it to unite us.

It’s not a case of fossil-fuel industry workers versus the rest, or Alberta versus British Columbia. We are all in this together. The challenge now is how to move forward in a way that leaves no one behind.

The fossil fuel industry has been — and continues to be — a key driver of Canada’s economy. Both of us had successful careers in the energy sector, but realized, along with an increasing number of energy workers, that the transition we need to cope with climate change could not be accomplished solely from within the industry.

Even as resource companies innovate to significantly reduce the carbon burden of each barrel, the total emission of greenhouse gases from all sources continues to rise. We must seize the opportunity to harness this innovative potential in alternative and complementary ways, mobilizing research and development, for example, to power carbon-intensive steelmaking and cement manufacture from hydrogen or to advance hybrid energy storage systems — the potential for cross-over technology is immense.

The bottom line is inescapable: we must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to prevent runaway global warming, which is why we launched Iron & Earth in 2016. Led by oilsands workers committed to increasingly incorporating renewable energy projects into our work scope, our non-partisan membership now includes a range of industrial trades and professions who share a vision for a sustainable energy future for Canada — one that would ensure the health and equity of workers, our families, communities, the economy, and the environment.

An important aspect of the transition away from fossil fuels is that our nation’s energy-sector workers are ideally positioned to help build a vibrant and globally competitive clean-energy sector. This is because fossil-fuel infrastructure has a similar industrial “DNA” to sustainable-energy infrastructures, such as biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydrogen and many other large-scale steel infrastructure projects. Thus, these projects require many of the same skill sets, the kind of attributes found in abundance in our oil and gas workforce.

A 2016 survey by Iron & Earth of skilled trades workers primarily with experience in the energy industry showed that 63 per cent believed their current skill set could be transferred to build and maintain a renewable energy future with some training, and 86 per cent expressed interest in training and development in renewables.

We need more than incremental change; we need planning and action on a scale and pace we haven’t seen since the Second World War when Canada massively retooled our economy to fight tyranny; we need to once again unite in common purpose to retool, re-invent and re-invigorate our industrial sector in defence of our collective future.

The lead must come from whichever party forms the next government. It will take unparalleled courage and political leadership motivated by an understanding that addressing climate change, while also developing our energy industry, doesn’t have to divide the country. Our only shot at avoiding the very worst of the climate emergency is if we do this together. MORE

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ON HOPE, HOPELESSNESS AND WINNING THE WORLD WE NEED: FIVE INSPIRING STORIES

March 2019

Fifty years ago Sierra Club BC was formed by a handful of people determined to defend old-growth forests. As we look forward – still defending the remaining big old trees! – it’s a time for deep reflection on where our organization, and our planet, is at.

There is so much work to be done, so many losses already suffered. There’s no hope at this point of stopping climate change—it’s already here—and there’s no hope of reaching our goals without an abrupt transition of our entire economy. Maybe it could have been smooth if we started decades earlier, but no longer.

And at the same time, there is definitely still hope that we can reduce emissions rapidly and do what the IPCC says is needed to stay below 1.5 degrees warming.

In reflecting on climate change, we experience a difficult tension between hope and hopelessness. Somehow we need to hold both at the same time. How do we honour important emotions like grief, while staying motivated to take critical actions that will make a difference?

The Big Stall: How big oil and think tanks are blocking action on climate change in CanadaIn December, Sierra Club BC’s Campaigns Director Caitlyn Vernon spoke at an event hosted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). It was the launch of a book by Donald Gutstein called The Big Stall. The book reveals how Canada’s energy sector and think tanks connected to Big Oil have systematically blocked action on climate change.

We’ve been told Caitlyn’s stories inspired hope and action. So we’ve adapted her words into a blog post to share her thoughts here with you. HERE

 

The False Choice Between Economic Growth and Combatting Climate Change

Last year, the U.S.’s carbon-dioxide emissions increased by an estimated 3.4 per cent, the second-largest gain in the past two decades.  Photograph by Fernando Moleres / Panos Pictures / Redux
In 1974, the economist William Nordhaus described the transition from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceship economy.” In the former, he wrote, “we could afford to use our resources profligately,” and “the environment could be used as a sink without becoming fouled.” But, in the spaceship economy, “great attention must be paid to the sources of life and to the dumps where our refuse is piled.” He added, “Things which have traditionally been treated as free goods—air, water, quiet, natural beauty—must now be treated with the same care as other scarce goods.”
 “It’s absolutely the case that emissions and growth can be decoupled,” Marshall Burke, an assistant professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science, told me.
“But the switch to nuclear and renewables needs to happen more rapidly. “It takes policy. It won’t happen through markets alone.”
As a small but growing coalition of congressional Democrats, led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have outlined as part of their Green New Deal, transforming the energy sector—and, really, the entire economy, in a just and more equitable way—will require some sort of carbon tax (preferably a “fee and dividend” approach, which distributes tax revenues as rebates directly to citizens), and also new regulations and huge investments. “We can decarbonize the electric sector at a fairly low cost….That’s where some of the cheapest emissions reductions are to be found. Extensive government subsidies could hasten the spread of renewables—specifically, solar, wind, and batteries—and offset any rise in emissions elsewhere….There are ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels in heating; utilities, for instance, can create incentive programs so that homeowners have a motivation to replace their boilers with electric heat pumps. MORE