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Review of Canada's energy systems unlikely to cut through noise generated by pipeline frenzy

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Wind turbines. Photo: Tobias Nordhausen/Flickr

The furious debate about the merits of current and future pipeline projects underscores the need for an evidence-based long-term energy strategy for our country, the conclusions of a new review of Canada's energy systems suggest.

Alas, the report released yesterday by the Corporate Mapping Project and its partners at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Edmonton-based Parkland Institute is likely only to intensify a debate that has become highly politicized and, in some quarters, frenzied.

Anyone who doubts this need only consider the rhetoric used to attack the University of Alberta's plan to award an honorary degree to renowned biologist and environmentalist David Suzuki, whose views on oilsands extraction have literally been characterized on social media as treasonous and terroristic in the past few days.

Even commentary in so-called mainstream media is not that far removed from what's spewing out of the darker corners of the internet. A Postmedia columnist last week managed to squeeze virtually every United Conservative Party anti-Suzuki talking point, no matter how silly, into a single overwrought rant. She even added a troubling new one, a slap at Hungarian-American financier George Soros, a regular target of eastern European neo-fascists and U.S. conspiracy theorists.

Licia Corbella's screed also tendentiously attempted to tie Premier Rachel Notley's pro-pipeline NDP government to Dr. Suzuki's views, something of a low even by recent Postmedia standards.

The Corporate Mapping Project report by earth scientist David Hughes may attempt to cast some illumination on the facts underlying this debate, but it is not likely in the current overheated circumstances to get much attention except as the work of "enemies" of the oilpatch who "want to destroy" Alberta jobs.

Indeed, this is already happening. Also last week, the Alberta operative for the supposedly non-partisan Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which dutifully stays in the United Conservative Party and federal Conservative message box in its rhetoric, attacked the Corporate Mapping Project as the work of "anti-oil research activists." In a blog post, Colin Craig demanded the federal government stop funding the project.

Well, I suppose you can make that case if you assume anyone who criticizes, or even analyzes, anything the fossil fuel industry does is "anti-oil." But given its self-professed mandate, it seems odd the CTF wouldn't be troubled by the potential costs of industry strategies to maximize profits as fossil fuel extraction enters its twilight years, as a case can be made is happening. You'd think a "tax watchdog" would be worried about taxpayers having to bear the multi-billion-dollar cost of cleaning up abandoned wells!

That said, I admit I was surprised when the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada agreed in late 2015 to fund the CMP with a six-year, $2.5-million grant -- a decision that was finalized in the final months of Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

It was clear from the get-go this was not an advocacy campaign for Big Oil. That, in itself, was an oddity in a country at a time it was becoming normal for government climate policies to be cooked up in the boardrooms of Calgary oil lobby groups, as happened with B.C.'s "climate leadership plan" under former premier Christy Clark's Liberal government.

Indeed, some of the conclusions of Hughes' latest research do run counter to the prevailing narrative spun by the oil industry and its Western Canadian advocates. Among them:

  • Expanding oil and gas production in line with National Energy Board estimates means the rest of the Canadian economy will have to reduce emissions by 49 per cent by 2030, and 85 per cent by 2040, to meet Canada's agreed-upon emissions reduction targets. Needless to say, this is not likely in the time available!
  • The Line 3 and Keystone XL pipelines will provide more than double the export capacity of the controversial Trans Mountain Expansion Project -- and meet foreseeable export needs under the Alberta government's oilsands emissions cap.
  • The argument there is an "Asian price premium" is likely false. "Canadian heavy oil is discounted because of its inferior quality and due to the cost of transportation." As a result, exports through the Trans Mountain Pipeline will likely command a lower price than exports to the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
  • Pipeline expansion is unlikely to result in many new jobs.
  • And Canada, busy exporting its highest-quality petroleum resources, has no plans for its own long-term energy security.

"This is a critical moment to develop a viable energy strategy, based on science and evidence, to address our future energy needs and emissions-reduction targets," Hughes argues in the report.

This may make sense to many Canadians, but it's unlikely to be viewed with much sympathy in the boardrooms of Calgary's fossil fuel companies or the backrooms of the political parties their Astro-Turf organizations support.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: Tobias Nordhausen/Flickr

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