Greenpeace activists from Canada, the US and France place a giant banner reading “Tar Sands: Climate Crime” at Shell operation outside Fort McMurray in September 2009. ©Colin O'Connor / Greenpeace
At an energy conference deep in American oil country earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau received an award for his global energy and environmental leadership.
“No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told oil and gas execs. “Our job is to ensure that this is done responsibly, safely and sustainably.”
One environmental group called the award a middle finger to the entire premise of environmental leadership.
But Calgary-based think tank the Canada West Foundation says it’s time environmentalists “end the charade.” Keeping the oil sands in the ground and stopping new pipelines “will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions,” argues the foundation’s newly-minted CEO, former Liberal leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay, in a Globe op-ed.
The former Willowdale MP insists she’s no climate change denier. She backed the Kyoto Accord in her 2006 leadership bid, even while supporting pipelines. She has become a trusty defender of the oil sands as Canada’s ever-cleaner and -greener economic engine.
Claim Peak oil isn’t coming any time soon, she argues, and “the world will use more oil even if Canada’s pipelines are stopped and oil sands remain in the ground.”
Reality check Findlay is referring to the International Energy Agency reports that suggest oil demand won’t start shrinking until well after 2040. But Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden told the same conference Trudeau attended that global demand for oil could peak and start falling within the decade, the very week Shell dumped its oil sands assets.
Says van Beurden, “Social acceptance is just disappearing,” especially as efficiency and greener substitutions start sapping demand. Either way, oil sands oil is some of the priciest to extract on the planet, which is why Exxon and ConocoPhillips recently wrote down 3.5 billion and 1 billion barrels of tar sands oil reserves and Norway’s Statoil walked away from Alberta entirely back in December to “optimize” its global portfolio - and shift 20 per cent of its capital spending to renewables over the next decade.
Claim Findlay contends the oil sands are no longer dirtier than other crudes. Newer projects in Alberta using paraffinic froth treatment (PTF) bring oil sands GHG emissions close to those of the average crude.
Reality check “The whole thing is a lie,” Oil Change International’s Adam Scott tells NOW.. “Over the last 10 years, the greenhouse gas intensity of the oil sands has gone up, not down.”
The Pembina Institute’s Benjamin Israel adds that “while the oil sands industry did make some significant one-off improvements in emissions intensity about 25 years ago (when moving to co-generation and less carbon-intensive-burning- fuels) they haven’t improved in a decade.”
Israel says carbon intensity is only expected to increase in coming years as companies drill for deeper higher emission bitumen and as distance to the processing facility increases.
All those ads suggesting the oil industry is reclaiming tailings ponds are BS, too. Big Oil has repeatedly failed to meet regulated targets to clean up over a trillion litres of toxic tailings. (Notably, Alberta just rejected Suncor’s plan to reclaim its tailing pond by pouring water on top of it).
Claim Alberta’s climate policies are super-stringent compared with other oil-producing regions and will help drive down carbon intensity even more, according to Findlay.
Reality check There’s no question Alberta’s 100-megatonne emissions cap is a step in the right direction, but that cap still technically allows the oil sands' greenhouse gases to grow a whopping 30 per cent in the next decade or so.
A 2016 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has calculated that if oil sands production grows to 100 megatonnes per year and BC builds just one LNG (liquefied natural gas) export terminal, emissions in the rest of Canada’s economy would have to shrink by 47 per cent by 2030 to meet Paris targets. “Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada can realistically meet its Paris commitments in the 14 years remaining without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development,” says the report.
Claim Enviros need to focus on real climate action, like reducing demand, says Findlay.
Reality check Findlay’s clear. She feels the world’s GHG emission problem doesn’t lie with poor, bullied -fossil fuel producers that are just meeting demand, but with all of us who are creating that demand.
Scott, however, says there’s a reason environmentalists around the globe target the oil sands. “It’s because projects in the tar sands are designed to last 50 years or longer.”
In the oil sands, he says, a big mine would produce 200,000 barrels a day of oil, continuously, locking us into emissions for decades to come. “There are a bunch of mines like that, and there’s a new one coming online next year. Once they’re built, it’s very difficult politically and economically to shut them.”