Andrea Harden-Donahue: Canada needs a sustainable energy strategy
By Andrea Harden-Donahue
In the lead-up to President Barack Obama’s first official visit to Canada (February 19), we have witnessed Canadian government officials propose a binational climate change pact and simultaneously emphasize the importance of Alberta’s tar sands to North American energy security. Like oil and water, real action addressing climate change and increasing emissions from Alberta’s tar sands simply don’t mix. Yet, this appears to be precisely what the Stephen Harper government has been advocating for.
The reason for this contradiction is quite clear. On the campaign trail, Obama proclaimed his commitment to breaking America’s addiction to “dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive” oil, and without a doubt, the tar sands are dirty. The tar sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. These deposits, located in Alberta, with some extensions in Saskatchewan, cover an area about the size of Florida and are the world’s second largest proven oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia). They contain bitumen, a tar-like substance that requires intensive processing to become synthetic crude. One barrel of synthetic crude from the tar sands produces approximately three times the amount of greenhouse gas pollution as conventional oil production.
Add to Obama’s comments those of Jason Grumet (Obama’s energy advisor on the campaign trail) and members of his administration with strong environmental records—you have a Canadian government on the defence. The Canadian government has demonstrated clear support for tar sands production, whether in the provision of large public subsidies, weak environmental regulations or the fast tracking of project approvals.
The proposed solution to this contradiction? Technology. Both the federal and Albertan governments have touted carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a means to green the tar sands and justify ongoing expansion. Large sums of money have been allocated in the recent federal budget and by Alberta towards the technology that stores carbon underground as a method for reducing emissions. There is no silver bullet “tech” solution to the tar sands. CCS is expensive, requiring massive subsidies, and the proposed regulatory timeline for implementation is long. There is even evidence that CCS will have limited capacity to reduce emissions in the tar sands. An Alberta-Canada EcoEnergy Task Force released a report in January 2008 that says only a small percentage of CO2 emitted from the tar sands is currently amenable to the technology because of the size and concentrations of emissions streams.
The impacts of the tar sands must be understood holistically. First Nations communities near tar sands development have raised concerns over unusually high rates of rare cancers and the lack of recognition of aboriginal title and treaty rights. The mining requires large tracts of boreal forest, which have been referred to as the lungs of our planet and are an important habitat, to be destroyed. On average, two to five barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil and large amounts of toxic water are stored in massive tailings ponds that cover an area of approximately 20 square miles.
Instead of its current course in supporting ongoing tar sands development, as exemplified in this recent contradiction, the Canadian government should be treating the pause in development caused by the economic crisis as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to put our country on a more sustainable path, one that is guided by the principles of ecological sustainability and ensuring Canadians energy security. “Green energy economy” is not a buzzword. There are significant job opportunities in improving energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy production, which also reduces emissions. If Prime Minister Harper were serious about addressing climate change he would match President Obama’s commitment to the expansion of renewable energy development. Instead, the recent Canadian federal budget included virtually no support for renewable energy.
The budget also sets aside $37.6 million in 2009-2010 for the Mackenzie Gas Project, which will transport natural gas from the Northwest Territories to Alberta for export to the U.S. and likely to help fuel the tar sands. It is ironic that our government is helping to support a project (which has been met by resistance from environmentalists and indigenous peoples) that will see a relatively clean burning fuel that heats homes exported and used to help produce energy-intensive tar sands crude. While Harper talks about North American energy security, the reality is that little is being done to ensure Canadian energy security. Energy production is disconnected from energy consumption in our country. Two-thirds of oil and close to 60 percent of natural gas in Canada is exported to the U.S., while Quebec and Atlantic Canada rely on imports to meet 90 percent of their oil needs.
This inconsistency belies the Canadian government’s ongoing faith in a free market approach to energy policy. Faced with the reality of climate change and diminishing energy resources, most countries have recognized that the market alone cannot satisfy national energy requirements and have national energy strategies. Canada has no strategic reserves, West-East energy sharing strategy, and is even obliged to maintain a proportion of energy exports to the U.S. under NAFTA. Simultaneously, we must recognize the need to transition to a low-carbon economy. Rather than attempting to thwart international climate change negotiations as our country did recently in Pozna? (United Nations Climate Change Conference, December 2008) we must meet international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What we need is a Canadian energy strategy guided by the principles of ensuring Canadians’ energy security and ecological sustainability. What we don’t need is a climate change pact that would allow for current and increased emissions in the tar sands.
Andrea Harden-Donahue is the energy campaigner for the Council of Canadians.