Skip to main content

Jeffrey Simpson: Canada’s energy future is a long way from green

Nobody, well, almost nobody, wants to hear the following news. Certainly not the Trudeau government.

The news comes from the National Energy Board that looked ahead to Canada's energy demand and supply from now until 2040. The report is dry and factual, as is appropriate for a federal agency in these times of heavy-duty rhetorical debate around energy and the environment. Ready?

Total energy use in Canada, including use of oil, will rise. It matters only a little if new oil pipelines are built. Energy demand will keep growing. So will the market for oil. Predicts the NEB, "fossil fuels remain the primary source of energy over the projection period."

Story continues below advertisement

Kill all four major oil pipelines – Energy East, Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan and Northern Gateway. It wouldn't matter all that much. Growth in energy use, including oil, would be only marginally lower.

Oil will find markets, shipped by train if not by pipeline, and markets here and abroad will continue to exist. The shipment of oil by train is more expensive than by pipeline. It will cut bottom-line profits, but not by enough to trim very much production. Train shipment, with attendant lower margins, will slice 1.7 per cent off Alberta's GDP.

What about renewables, the Holy Grail of environmentalists? Wind and solar have grown fast in the past decade, and will continue to grow, but from a very small share of total energy demand. Figuring out how to store energy for when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow remains elusive.

Today, wind, solar and biomass account for 9 per cent of total energy production. That share might double by 2040. Renewables' growth, however, cannot possibly replace the energy lost from phasing down coal and filling the country's rising energy requirements. To suggest otherwise is fantasy.

What about greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change? They dropped only 3 per cent from 2005 to 2013, leaving Canada way below the Harper government's stated targets. Ontario's phasing out coal and the recession of 2008-09 were the major reason for the decline.

The Trudeau Liberals have bold plans – at a high level of abstraction and subject to negotiations with provinces – to bring GHG emissions down very sharply.

To accomplish this, they must contend with the NEB's estimate that fossil-fuel use is slated to grow by 22 per cent to 2040. Intensity of energy use that produces GHGs will be lowered, but overall fossil-fuel use will rise. Ergo, higher, not lower, GHG emissions from fossil fuels.

Story continues below advertisement

The NEB posits various scenarios for future oil and natural gas prices and future economic growth. It doesn't matter under which scenario – high, low or constrained – fossil-fuel use grows. It just depends by how much.

What about the recent Paris climate change summit? There, an aspirational goal was set of limited warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Alas, according to a recent United Nations report on the Paris results, the commitments there will produce more, not fewer, GHG emissions in 2030 than in 2010. In fairness, countries have agreed to meet every five years to monitor progress and seek deep commitments.

The NEB repeatedly and properly stressed that it is only looking at what is happening today and projects forward. The agency cannot take into account world price trends for energy or what policies Canadian government might undertake, for example, to price carbon across the country, try to shift the energy mix or subsidize clean technology.

Nor does it know the outcome of hearings and debates about oil pipelines, but the agency cautions that in the great scheme of things the outcome doesn't matter much in lowering energy demand.

The Trudeau government seems to think that the new environmental assessments added to the NEB's study of two pipelines – Energy East and Kinder Morgan – might soften environmentalists' and aboriginals' opposition. Nice try. A bevy of environmental groups praised the government's decision, but quickly insisted they would still oppose the projects.

The NEB did the best job it could outlining future scenarios. The agency cannot possibly anticipate all developments between now and 2040, including technological breakthroughs.

Story continues below advertisement

What the NEB's report did was underscore how dependent we are on fossil fuels, how dependent we will be for a long time, and how difficult it will be changing, let alone ending, that dependence.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter