Oilsands being left in the ground is just a matter of fact, experts say

The furor over a New Democrat candidate’s remarks about leaving Alberta’s oilsands in the ground reflects how poorly the issue is understood, say energy experts.

EDMONTON — The furor over a New Democrat candidate’s remarks about leaving Alberta’s oilsands in the ground reflects how poorly the issue is understood, say energy experts.

To many, Toronto Centre candidate Linda McQuaig’s recent statement is just the simple fact of the matter.

“The shock is that anyone would be shocked by this,” said Mark Jaccard, an environmental economist at Simon Fraser University.

Jaccard, who recently signed a letter with 100 scientific colleagues calling for a moratorium on new oilsands development, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s goals for emission reductions preclude complete development of the massive resource.

Harper has agreed with a G7 goal of up to 70 per cent greenhouse gas cuts by 2050 and a carbon-free economy by the end of the century.

But estimates suggest the oilsands hold about 168 billion barrels. At current production of about two million barrels a day, that’s 230 years worth of emissions.

Jaccard said Harper’s G7 promise automatically shuts in bitumen — unless massive costs are paid by the rest of society.

“Let’s say you kept oilsands frozen at its current output level,” he said. “(That means) you can’t have any coal-fired power generation in Canada. You’ve got to convert about two-thirds of the vehicle stock to plug-in hybrid electrics and any kind of large trucks have to be on biodiesel.”

And the more oilsands production increases, the more carbon has to come out of the rest of the economy.

“You could expand the oilsands a bit if the rest of us went to zero emissions,” he said. “It would be insane, but it would be possible.”

Or the costs of keeping emissions in check could be borne by industry, said Allan Fogwill of the Canadian Energy Research Institute, an independent research group. Greater energy efficiency or techno-fixes such as carbon capture and storage could reduce Canada’s overall carbon footprint and still allow for oilsands expansion.

“We have the technical solutions available to go down any path,” he said. “The limiting factor is how much those solutions cost.”

That limiting factor may be as important as government policy, said Erin Flanagan of the clean energy think-tank Pembina Institute.

She points to research suggesting oil prices are likely to remain below the cost of production for new oilsands projects well into the next decade. By then, markets may have changed permanently.

“Will they come out of the ground or won’t they come out of the ground? That question is being answered already by global oil markets,” she said.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers declined to comment during the election. A spokesman pointed to 2012 research that suggested burning the entire economic oilsands resource would increase global temperatures by 0.03 C.

McQuaig’s point has been made before.

In 2008, a report from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy — a Harper-appointed body the government later shut down — said “research indicates that the only option to attain deep emission reductions is to reduce industrial output in some sectors, notably oilsands and mining.”

Still, her remarks prompted a political back-and-forth between New Democrats and Conservatives that lasted days.

Time to get real, said Jaccard.

Even Saudi Arabia has begun to acknowledge some of its hydrocarbons will remain undeveloped, he said.

“It’s kind of like we’re in a dialogue in Canada that reminds me of Saudi Arabia 20 years ago.”

Flanagan said governments need to think about mitigating risks in a changing world.

“The level of fanfare around these comments is really troubling. It shows we’re not ready to have that mature conversation.”

Just Posted

Alberta energy war room must avoid online morass, preaching to choir: experts

CALGARY — Tzeporah Berman only learned of her cameo appearance at an… Continue reading

Two dead, including one who police believe was a child, in Alberta house fire

PLAMONDON, Alta. — Two people, including one who police believe was a… Continue reading

CSIS destroyed secret file on Pierre Trudeau, stunning historians

OTTAWA — Canada’s spy service destroyed a Cold War dossier on Pierre… Continue reading

Premier refuses to back down on plan to scrap 18,000 immigration applications

Quebec Premier Francois Legault is holding firm on his plan to scrap… Continue reading

Pro-pipelines rally draws crowd to City Hall

Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Canada missing out on billions in revenue

Federal cabinet decision on fate of Trans Mountain pipeline due Tuesday

OTTAWA — The Liberal government’s $4.5 billion gamble to buy the Trans… Continue reading

Skier, 22 dies after fall on Mount Haig near Castle Mountain Ski Resort

PINCHER CREEK, Alta. — RCMP from the Pincher Creek, Alta., detachment are… Continue reading

4 years in, Trump fondly recalls Trump Tower campaign launch

NEW YORK — It was the escalator ride that would change history.… Continue reading

Massive protests draw apology from Hong Kong leadership

Hong Kong citizens marched for hours Sunday in a massive protest that… Continue reading

Butterfly garden keeper manages to film large tarantula shedding exoskeleton

VICTORIA — A 20-centimetre tarantula capable of killing a bird has been… Continue reading

Telegraph-Journal wins 2018 Michener Award recognizing public-service journalism

OTTAWA — The Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick has been named the winner… Continue reading

Victorious Raptors cancel their return to Toronto after becoming NBA champs

TORONTO — Some Raptors players returned to Toronto on Saturday night for… Continue reading

How a Montreal working-class neighbourhood’s activists changed Quebec and Canada

MONTREAL — The Pointe-St-Charles neighbourhood is isolated from the rest of Montreal… Continue reading

Most Read