Adam Pankratz is a lecturer at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors at Rokmaster Resources and ran for the federal Liberal Party in the riding of Burnaby South in 2015.
For some leaders, a public health crisis the likes of which the world has never seen is an opportunity. Not to make lasting and positive changes, mind you – but to drive wedge agendas while ordinary people bear the full brunt of their impact. Around the world we are witnessing extreme acts – politicians consolidating power and stoking racial tensions – as well as less severe uses of the cover being offered by COVID-19.
Last week, we saw one such dismal display in Canada, even if it was of the milder variety by world standards. Former Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet came out to demand – amidst the pandemic-driven shock that led the benchmark price for U.S. oil to dip below $0 on Monday for the first time ever – that Canadians must move past oil, never to return. “Oil is dead,” Ms. May declared, while Mr. Blanchet added that the oil sands are “condemned” and that "putting more money into that business is a very bad idea.”
This amounts to the two federal party leaders asking for a continued flagellation of Canada’s economy while COVID-19 continues to ravage it.
The pandemic has given us a taste of what a rapid elimination of fossil fuels from the economy would look like. Yes, there has been a sharp decline in the demand for oil worldwide, since people are staying home and the airline industry has been shut down. Global carbon output is expected to plunge by the largest amount since the Second World War. But the power that Canadians are using while sequestered inside their homes – as well as our supply chains – still relies on an industry being dismissed as “dead.” Let us not forget that the year in which the world consumed the most oil to date was 2019.
Ms. May and Mr. Blanchet are advocates for clean energy, but it’s not clear how the country would be powered in the interim if oil really was in the grave. In 2019, researchers at the University of Victoria looked at energy requirements for British Columbia to electrify all vehicles by 2055, and found it would need to double its energy output – a further 15.6 gigawatts. For context, BC Hydro’s current mega-dam project, Site C, will produce 1.1 gigawatts. When Ms. May and Mr. Blanchet identify the next 20 rivers they want to dam in order to electrify a province or two, I am sure Canadians will be excited to hear from them.
The ideological tone-deafness of Ms. May and Mr. Blanchet to once again condemn Canada’s fossil-fuel industry is also shocking in its callous disregard for the hardworking Canadians who get up everyday to move our economy forward in this industry. But wedge politics apparently need not die in a worldwide pandemic, the potential for economic catastrophe be damned. Indeed, the energy industry alone accounts for more than 10 per cent of Canada’s economy; well more than two-thirds of that comes from oil and gas. The oil and gas sector contributes more than $50-billion a year to Canada’s balance of payments, dwarfing other industries. This cannot be ignored, no matter how tightly one’s eyes and ears are shut.
Ms. May’s comments give us another chance to see why the Green Party is so rarely taken seriously by anyone without a narrow and vehement environmental agenda that fails to take the entire country into account. In the 2019 federal election, the Greens had a magnificent chance to make a real electoral splash after the Liberal Party’s missteps, and yet their platform stubbornly remained a fantasy land of promises and slogans that few voters wanted to see coming from anyone in a position of influence. And that was before Canadians desperately wanted to get back to a sense of normalcy.
While Ms. May demonstrates tone-deafness, Mr. Blanchet shows hypocrisy. One might ask him, for a start, where the energy to heat Canadian homes will come from if the oil sands are “done.” As Quebec gets most of its oil from the United States and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Blanchet is probably unconcerned by this, as is his attitude to most Canadians in general. But a follow-up could be to wonder where Quebec’s $13-billion in equalization payments will come from without a healthy energy market and economy. To Mr. Blanchet, these appear to be mere details.
COVID-19 has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands worldwide and many thousands here in Canada. Governments have rightly put in place measures to stop its spread and support the economic shutdown resulting from stringent physical distancing. Even as Canadians have done a laudable job so far of flattening the COVID-19 curve, the next months and years in Canada will be difficult both from a public health standpoint, as well as an economic one. Like it or not, the oil and gas industry will be a significant part of the recovery plan.
Politicians such as Ms. May and Mr. Blanchet need to recognize that COVID-19 necessitates Canadian unity in the face of an invisible assailant. Now is not the time to sow discord under the cover of an emergency.
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