“Keep it all in the ground”: Canadians Reckon with Dirty Energy and Hypocritical Policies
Mimi, an elderly Inuit woman who lives in the small Quebec village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, knows the George River well. Every summer, at the river’s terminus, she watches the salmon migration, and she sees black bears—and polar bears, if she is lucky—stalk caribou at the southern tip of the Arctic sea ice pack. I met Mimi in the summer of 2015 at the end of a whitewater canoeing trip. When I asked if the 35° F weather was normal for a sunny August day, she shook her head. It was too warm. Over the past decade, the salmon had begun migrating earlier, polar bears had stopped wandering south, and sea ice had continued to retreat.
When Justin Trudeau assumed office as Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, the international community already recognized him as a champion of progressive social policy. In his campaign, Trudeau established himself as an outspoken feminist, an ally to refugees, and a protector of indigenous people’s rights. On environmental policy, though, he stayed comparatively quiet.
This silence was especially noteworthy given Canada’s precarious identity both as the world’s sixth largest oil producer and as a region especially vulnerable to climate change. In his first years in office, Trudeau pushed a federal carbon tax and imposed a moratorium on Arctic drilling. But Canada’s stubborn commitment to fossil fuels in the western provinces directly conflicts with Trudeau’s progressive track record.
At a Houston petroleum industry meeting, Trudeau voiced support for drilling and received a standing ovation. “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told the crowd, according to The Guardian.
In 2016, Trudeau approved the Petronas liquefied gas project and pushed through several major pipeline extension plans meant to transport much of those 173 billion barrels of crude oil. Trudeau’s climate legislation seems so contradictory to his public image that Bill McKibben, founder of the carbon-mitigation organization 350, published an opinion piece in The Guardian in April titled “Stop swooning over Justin Trudeau. The man is a disaster for the planet.”
Canada’s geography makes the reduction—and eventually phasing out—of tar sands and drilling activity in the western provinces all the more urgent. During the spring of 2016, Canada’s land and sea ice began to melt an estimated four to five weeks earlier than usual. Melted land ice in particular contributes to sea level rise and exposes the darker land below. This land absorbs more heat from the sun and promotes further melting, creating a dangerous positive feedback loop that motivates rapid ice loss.
Some areas of land and sea ice also remain unprotected by Trudeau’s 2015 moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in the Arctic. The ban, formally known as the United States-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement, included a press release that explicitly defines the areas protected from new leasing. But its definitions of sustainable shipping policies through Arctic waters remain vague. This ambiguity contradicts the partnership’s stated priorities: protecting the lands for the sake of cultural significance and ecological stability, and protecting inhabitants from the operational risks of extraction processes.
The statement does not offer substantive policy recommendations to protect Arctic waters from shipping pollution and spills. A 2015 Scientific American article, “Can the Arctic Be Developed and Protected?” analyzed the international Arctic Council’s regulations that took effect last January. Although the new code prohibits ships from dumping oil in Arctic waters, it still allows ships to carry oils offshore and does not address regulation of spill cleanup or heavy fuel oil use.
Canada’s heaviest hydrocarbon producers are based in western provinces—particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan. These provinces, along with Newfoundland, are the only ones led by conservative governing parties. Alberta and Saskatchewan collaborate closely with the largest players in the oil industry, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC), both influential lobby groups for petroleum extraction and refining. PSAC represents over 240 companies in Canada’s oilfield supply and manufacturing and has historically lobbied for fossil fuel development, but lately the association has started turning to clean energy.
Mark Salkeld, president and CEO of PSAC, does not think the country is likely to halt oil drilling anytime soon.
“The likelihood of Canada’s phasing away from fossil fuels for energy in the near future is slim to none,” he said in an interview with The Politic. “Canada needs a mix of all forms of energy—solar, wind, hydro, nuclear and geothermal, for instance—along with oil and gas.”
Changes in PSAC’s membership policy reflect a trend towards supporting the use of renewable energy among member companies. The association recently removed the requirement that member companies must derive half of their revenue from oilfield development.
“Current members are applying renewable and alternative energy sources to their service offerings,” Salkeld said.
This policy change allows energy companies to enjoy the benefits of membership while retaining the freedom to invest or directly work in renewable energy development. The decision also represents a massive shift in corporate ideology. PSAC’s steps toward a renewable-energy future suggest that there are alternatives to the all-or-nothing approach of choosing between fossil fuels and renewables.
“It is not a them or us scenario,” said Salkeld. “It is them and us.”
Despite the hegemony of oil and gas lobby groups like PSAC in the western provinces, environmental protection organizations also exert their influence in Canadian oil country. To Gideon Forman, a climate change and transportation policy analyst from the David Suzuki Foundation, changing oil and gas policies are signs of hope. But these changes are not without complications. Alberta’s economic diversity data from 2015 noted that 18.5 percent of the province’s GDP came from oil, gas, and mining. Halting drilling would strike a major blow to the economic productivity of Alberta, which is home to three of the nation’s largest and most productive oil sands, and the people living there.
“We are very concerned about workers in these industries,” Forman said in an interview with The Politic. “That they’re not left high and dry.”
The Athabasca sands, based around the city of Fort McMurray, are the world’s largest reserve of crude oil. The reserves were largely responsible for Alberta’s strong economic growth when the province began developing oil sands in the mid-1900s, leading to the greatest increase in provincial revenue from a single industry in Canadian history.
Meanwhile, the province spends millions of dollars trying to make the oil industry appear environmentally-conscious. For years, oil and gas proponents in Alberta have poured millions of dollars into carbon scrubbing, which uses chemical agents to remove carbon from smokestacks, and artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS), which sequesters the removed carbon underground. Although these technologies diminish the environmental harm of smokestacks, they come at a high ecological and economic cost.
From a geological standpoint, artificial sequestration of carbon is dangerous, as pumping large volumes of fluids underground increases the frequency of human-induced earthquakes.
From environmental and economic standpoints, investing in CCS is investing in a fallacy. The investments are last-ditch attempts to make the fossil fuel industry appear ecologically viable. Alberta will spend about 1.25 billion dollars on its two largest CCS projects, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line and the Quest Project, instead of renewable energy development. “While there’s a huge amount of oil and gas in [Alberta and Saskatchewan], there’s also world-class wind and solar resources,” Forman said. “Those provinces could do much more to develop their resources.”
Although Canada’s federal climate policies fail to effect much change on the provincial level, Forman is optimistic that the western provinces can move toward renewables in the near future. “Over the next few years, I could see most, if not all, of Alberta’s electricity coming from wind and solar,” he said.
Considering the country’s status as a progressive leader, its environmental policy is lagging. The future of clean energy in Canada is uncertain, but the current contradiction is clear: Canada, otherwise home to progressive policy, lacks the stringent environmental legislation needed to free the nation from fossil fuels. But on the question of the future, some lobbyists and activists are optimistic.
“The switch to a cleaner future will happen,” Salkeld told The Politic. “We began with wood and whale oil, then to coal and kerosene, now oil and gas, to hydro, wind, solar and nuclear…We have been transitioning all along and will continue to do so.”
“I’m not saying it’s happening overnight,” Forman said. “We’re going to see a move away from fossils fuels…but it’s going to take some time.”
Canada is home to delicate ecosystems that are doubly vulnerable: The oil and natural gas industries have preyed on the tundra for decades—a region already sensitive to the effects of global warming.
In 2015, abnormally warm temperatures and unusual migration patterns worried Mimi, the Inuit woman from Kangiqsualujjuaq. When I asked about the Energy East pipeline project proposed almost exactly two years earlier, which would use Quebec City as a port terminal, Mimi shook her head again.
“Keep it all in the ground.”