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Hill Dispatches: Should Canada curtail oil and gas exports?

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Clayton Thomas-Muller, November 27, 2011

A new report says that if Canada wants to get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions it will have to deal not only with domestic production and consumption, but with exports, as well.

The report is from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and it says that Canada's "exported" emissions actually exceed this country's (large and growing) domestic emissions.

In 2009 Canada produced over 500 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels consumed in Canada. But it produced 600 million tonnes of emissions from exported coal, natural gas, crude oil and petroleum products.

"Although most conventional fossil fuel sources are dwindling," the report says, "Instead of working aggressively to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, Canada and other nations have shifted to an even dirtier path of developing unconventional fossil fuel sources that are much more difficult to extract and that result in higher production emissions."

Canada's vast fossil fuel reserves

In Canada, the report's authors say, when we talk "dirty fossil fuels" we are talking about the tar sands and the newest Canadian fad in the oil and gas industry: shale gas.

Thanks to the oil sands, Canada now has the world's third largest fossil fuel reserves. Canadian confirmed reserves alone, the report tells us, "are equivalent to 91.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions." That is about three times the emissions for the entire world in 2010!

But the report goes even further.

"Estimates of probable reserves," it says, "represent ... almost six times annual global emissions."

The authors of the report are Marc Lee, a senior economist with the CCPA and Amanda Card, a Master's student in public policy and research assistant with the CCPA.

They have a very simple solution to the challenge Canadian fossil fuel exports pose to efforts to reduce global emissions. Canada should "leave them in the ground" they say. Otherwise, this country will never meet any kind of reasonable emission reduction targets.

That proposal is the diametric opposite of current government policy, which is focused on assuring foreign markets for Canadian fossil fuels, in particular the oil sand product. Hence, the government's backing of the Keystone pipeline and its active efforts to get the European Union to weaken pollution standards that would penalize imports of "dirty fuels," such as those from the oil sands.

The economic impact of getting out of fossil fuels

The CCPA report recognizes that there is a significant economic dimension to what it proposes.

Fossil fuel exports account for over one fifth of Canada's total exports, and are a significant generator of jobs and wealth.

If anyone wants to suggest a moratorium on new oil and gas development and phasing out a significant piece of the existing industry, they should take those hard facts into account.

The authors of this report do not address the economic impact question in great detail. Perhaps that will come later.

For now, this is how they address the jobs issue:

"An important social justice concern in shifting away from fossil fuel extraction is the negative impact on many workers in these industries, and on the communities they live in," the report says. "Fossil fuel production contributed 81,000 jobs to the Canadian economy in 2008, or about 0.6% of Canadian employment."

In addition, Lee and Card admit that "the promise of green jobs in the future is not the same as good high-income jobs today."

Retraining and re-education

And so, they suggest that "the transition away from fossil fuels must happen in a way that minimizes impacts on resource-dependent communities and that commits to ... strategies for affected workers."

Those strategies, the report argues, should include "income supports, retraining provisions and mobility allowances as part of a 'green social contract' that ensures that no groups bear disproportionate costs of adjustment to a carbon neutral economy."

For an example of what such a strategy might be the authors point to Denmark's "flexicurity" model, which provides extensive income support and education and training for displaced workers.

Even those concerned about the environment might find this report to be quite daring and far-reaching. It will be interesting to see if any elected political group champions its ideas.

Human and environmental costs of exploiting tar sands

Climate change is real; but it is still, somehow, not something that most of us recognize as being tangible and immediate. Were those unusual violent winds in Calgary, on Sunday, a result of global warming, for instance? Some think so. Some even suggest that they were an unintentional, ironic comment on Canada's lack of effort in the area of emissions, on the eve of Durban!

However we feel about climate change, we cannot forget that producing dirty oil has other negative consequences aside from a warming planet.

Clayton Thomas-Muller is a Campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network. He took part in an environmental activists' news conference in Ottawa on Monday morning, and talked about the devastating impact of tar sands development on the Athabasca and Mackenzie River watershed (one sixth of Canada's fresh water).

Tar sands projects "dump 11 million litres of toxic effluent into the water every day," Thomas-Muller points out. This has damaging effects on the entire watershed, from Northern Alberta all the way to the Mackenzie Delta, north of the Arctic Circle.

As well, says Thomas-Muller, the tar sands are causing the decimation of the boreal forest of Northern Alberta. It is, he says "the second fastest rate of deforestation in the world -- just after the Amazon basin."

Who should pay the price?

Those soothing television commercials and newspaper ads promoting the tar sands as almost a boon for the environment are one side of the story. There is another side, a side that does not have the means to pay for national advertising campaigns.

The impacts Thomas-Muller talks about will not be part of the discussions at Durban, certainly not if the Canadian government can do anything about it. But they serve to remind us that while the CCPA report may not fully explore the economic consequences of weaning ourselves away from fossil fuel exports, extracting difficult-to-get-at Canadian fossil fuels brings with it all kinds of costs: economic, environmental and social.

The ultimate question might be: who should bear the costs of whatever course of action we choose? Nobody asked that question before we started exploiting the tar sands. Now might be a god time to consider it.

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