Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Bitumen needed statesmen, not salesmen Add to ...

Proponents of bitumen oil see a sea of troubles, or at least choppy waters, almost everywhere.

An eventual west-east line to Quebec and New Brunswick looks promising. Elsewhere, prospects are uncertain or grim.

The biggest proponents of bitumen oil – the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, the Harper Conservatives and the oil industry itself – have, in some respects, been the authors of these troubles. They could have acted differently and possibly made things easier. But a different course of action would have required a different strategic understanding.

More Related to this Story

They could have started with a map. Bitumen oil is landlocked. Instead of asking, “What can we do to help other jurisdictions trans-ship our oil?”, the Alberta government and the Harperites assumed that everyone else desperately needed bitumen – that what was good for Alberta would axiomatically be good for all.

The two governments insisted that critics were ill-informed when they said bitumen is dirtier than conventional oil. They swallowed the canard that bitumen oil is somehow “ethical” because Canada has better standards than Iran and Venezuela – standing ethics on its head by defining our practices against the worst, rather than the notional idea of the best.

These self-comforting but delusional starting points led to trouble. Instead of analyzing how to deal with criticism constructively, the governments decided it was to be denounced. In a classic strategic error, the governments lumped critics together instead of realizing that they ranged from those who oppose all new oil to those who know oil will continue to be in demand but want to lower emissions from its use.

Two strategies should have guided the government/industry approach: Find out what other jurisdictions need to give Alberta a “yes,” and what Alberta needs to make bitumen emissions comparable to those of conventional oil.

A very smart Alberta premier and a solution-seeking federal government would have gone to British Columbia a long time ago and asked: “How can we make this happen together?” The Alberta premier should have gone to Prince Rupert and Victoria and Vancouver, spoken to local groups and officials, sought common ground.

Instead, B.C. was taken for granted. Yes, B.C. Premier Christy Clark pulled a stunt by going to Calgary, meeting for 10 minutes with counterpart Alison Redford, then racing for the microphones to play politics back home. Apparently, the two premiers can’t stand each other. But the long game of strategy involves the pursuit of interests rather than personal pique.

As it stands, the two pipelines proposed for bitumen oil across B.C. are in serious, likely irredeemable, political trouble. Ms. Clark has laid down her five conditions, which have been rebuffed by Alberta. Her possible successor, New Democrat Adrian Dix, has rejected Kinder Morgan down the Fraser Valley before environmental hearings even begin.

As for the Keystone XL pipeline through the United States, it has been held up much longer than anyone expected, delayed by internal U.S. politics. It’s likely to be approved eventually, but President Barack Obama’s administration was hoping for serious action, or even a gesture, by Alberta and Canada to reduce bitumen emissions. That might have helped deal with the European Union’s fuel directive aimed at bitumen.

Instead, Alberta and Canada kept sending salesmen to Washington and elsewhere, restating Alberta’s great environmental record, a stretch of an argument. Yes, the intensity of emissions per barrel from bitumen oil has come down, but with the anticipated increase in barrels in the decades ahead, emissions will rise, not fall.

Alberta’s per capita carbon emissions are the second-highest in Canada, after Saskatchewan’s. Alberta’s total emissions are easily the highest in Canada. Doing something about this by way of a carbon tax or an increase in the existing intensity tax would have demonstrated real commitment. If Ottawa had published its regulations for the oil and gas industry, instead of endlessly delaying their publication, that would have helped too.

Instead, the governments, presumably with the industry’s blessing, acted as if salesmanship rather than statesmanship would suffice. As such, they have contributed to this sea of troubles.

In the know

Top videos »