It’s time to quit the boom-bust roller coaster

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“Please Lord, give me another oil boom, and I promise not to p… it away!” said a popular Alberta bumper sticker in the 1980s.

Another boom and bust have since come and gone, and Alberta’s Heritage Fund has less savings in constant dollars than it did 30 years ago. Alberta’s economy is no more diversified and is now precariously dependent on a carbon energy resource – sands oil – that the rest of the world has turned against.

More than 35,000 oil patch jobs have been lost in Alberta since last November, when international oil prices tanked. Job losses continue, especially for construction workers. Late last month, Shell pulled out of a sands in situ project, citing a lack of pipelines to get crude to global markets.

When will Ottawa and the provinces realize that their obsession with exporting carbon energy is reaching a dead end? Former prime minister Stephen Harper had bizarre energy superpower pretensions, portraying the oil sands as “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”

Justin Trudeau will likely dial down the hyberbole, but signs point to his government’s continued interest in exporting carbon energy. We need to get energy resources to export markets, he has declared. He’s been non-commital on exporting bitumen via the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick, but visited Washington to steadfastly support the now-dead Keystone XL pipeline. He supports the ban on crude oil tankers on B.C.’s North Coast. That rules out Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, but leaves the door open to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to Burnaby, east of Vancouver.

Supporting oil sands-exporting pipelines is a mistake. Mr. Trudeau will find that Canada cannot shake its international environmental rogue image if his government leaves the greatest source of greenhouse gases untouched.

It’s the production of oil and natural gas, not its transportation in Canada, that is this country’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. And Alberta’s sands are both Canada’s fastest-growing source of the gases and the main roadblock to meeting the nation’s 2008 and 2011 pledges to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent from our 1990 level by 2050.

Our country’s emissions will plummet when Canada phases out carbon energy exports and Alberta’s oil sands.

Canada will have to do this for economic reasons, too. With the U.S. market no longer a sure thing, Big Oil has pinned its hopes on getting pipelines to a coast, any coast, to export oil to China. But China is slowing and turning from a manufacturing economy to one that’s more service-oriented. Its demand for Canadian carbon energy exports is lessening.

To get to a low-carbon future, Canada needs to turn to self-sufficiency – end Quebeckers’ and Atlantic Canadians’ risky reliance on imported oil, and supply them with domestic, conventional, non-fracked oil.

Once it stops exporting oil, Newfoundland can supply all Atlantic Canadians with conventional oil. There’s no need for the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick.

Canada has just enough conventional, non-fracked oil to supply all Canadians, but not to continue oil exports. Besides, opposition to pushing pipelines over aboriginal and provincial lands is fierce. As Mr. Trudeau has said, it’s not just up to governments to grant permits – we have to get communities to grant permission.

Rather than pray for pipeline approvals and another boom, now’s the time to get off the boom-and-bust roller coaster.

The key to transitioning to the low-carbon future is to recognize that a unit of carbon energy saved creates more jobs than a unit of carbon energy dug up, burned and emitted.

Laid-off construction workers in Alberta’s oil sands can be better employed building high-speed trains between Calgary and Edmonton and along the Windsor-Toronto-Montreal-Quebec city corridor, or retrofitting buildings across Canada, or constructing new light-rail transit and renewable-energy projects.

The Liberals in Ottawa and Rachel Notley’s NDP government in Alberta are promising to spend billions on infrastructure. This should be the start of a larger plan to quickly convert Canada to a low-carbon, socially just society. Laid-off construction workers from the oil sands will likely be happy to work on projects closer to home.

Big Oil is curbing investments in Alberta’s sands, and Conservative governments in Ottawa and Edmonton are gone. Now is the time to dream big again.

Gordon Laxer is the founding director of Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta and the author of After the Sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians.

Photo credit: Jeff Wallace

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