Ted Morton is an executive fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Calgary. He previously served as Alberta’s minister of energy and minister of finance.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s mandatory cuts to oil production are properly understood as a necessary evil, the least-worst option facing the Alberta government and Western Canadian oil producers. It is akin to amputating a badly infected leg to save the rest of the body. It is better than the alternatives, but hardly something to celebrate. If they work – and this is not a given – they may bring short-term relief from the current export backlogs that are crushing prices for Canadian oil.
But we should not allow the focus on this short-term micro-issue to blind us to the broader macro issues that are slowly strangling our oil and gas sector – and the jobs and lives of the tens of thousands of Canadian families who work in this sector.
To begin, how did we get into this predicament? The answer is easy: Justin Trudeau’s pipeline policies. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2015, he first vetoed Northern Gateway, and then encouraged the National Energy Board to kill Energy East by imposing new requirements. Most recently, he refused to stand up to the federal Court of Appeal’s veto of the Trans Mountain expansion, a pipeline he had just spent $4.5-billion to buy.
The judicial reasoning in this decision is completely out of line with the Supreme Court of Canada’s two most recent decisions concerning “duty to consult” – its 2017 decisions in Clyde River/ Line 9 and Jumbo Ski. The Trudeau government should have stated this publicly, immediately appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and asked for a reversal. Instead, Mr. Trudeau launched yet another consultation process to avoid alienating the anti-pipeline, climate-change voters that helped the Liberals win a majority government in 2015.
A second issue is the complete failure of the “social licence” strategy. In their zeal to be climate change leaders, both Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Notley were blind to the fact that anti-pipeline non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don’t want cleaner, safer oil pipelines. They want no pipelines. At 2 per cent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, what Canada does to reduce demand – i.e. carbon taxes and cap-and-trade – won’t make any difference. For the true believers, what needs to be done is to shut down Canada’s oil sands – the third-largest reserve in the world. To achieve this, they will use legal challenges to block every and any attempt to restart the Trans Mountain expansion, or any other new export pipeline. There will never be “social licence.”
Then there is the unpleasant but inescapable fact that under the North American free-trade agreement, and now the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Canadian carbon-reduction policies must be more or less in line with what the Americans are doing. If we impose higher carbon penalties than the United States, investment capital will simply go south. This is what economists call “carbon leakage.” It not only scares away capital investment and jobs to lower-cost jurisdictions, but also achieves no net reduction in emissions. The emissions just follow the money and go into the air on the other side of the border. It’s a lose-lose option, and that’s where we are right now.
Last but not least is the futility of 2015 Paris climate accord. To achieve the Paris goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degree C, global emissions would have to be reduced by 6,000 gigatonnes (GTs). Under a best-case scenario – the unlikely case in which all signatories meet all their commitments – Paris would achieve a reduction of only 56 GTs by 2030, leaving 99 per cent of the problem unresolved. Even James Hansen, the ex-NASA scientist and one of the earliest climate change crusaders, has called Paris “a fraud, a fake. There is no action, just promises.”
Consumers are also realizing that renewables can’t meet the efficiencies and low costs of oil and gas. The energy riots in Paris are a reminder that in industrial democracies, struggling middle-class families are not going to sacrifice their jobs for expensive renewable-energy policies, whose negative impact on their lives are immediate and whose benefits are debatable or down the road. Here in Canada, the Progressive Conservative election victory in Ontario reflected a similar backlash against carbon taxes, Many voters felt these policies were making it more expensive to heat their homes, drive their kids to the hockey rink or go to the cottage on weekends. None of this is surprising; the vast majority of middle-class families vote pocket-book issues.
These are the real energy policy issues facing not just Alberta, but all of Canada. As it seems unlikely that the Trudeau Liberals are going to reverse course on their Paris commitments, it is incumbent on Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives to communicate these unpleasant facts to the Canadian electorate in next October’s federal election.