Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

History, it is said, is just one damn thing after another. So is the future, the difference being that with history we sort of know what happened, whereas with the future, who can really know?

What ifs are the future. Companies and people make a lot of money telling others what will happen, but who can be really sure?

As a rule of thumb, the further the projection, the weaker the prediction. That rule doesn't stop people from making predictions, many of which consist, wrongly, in assuming that the future will proceed in some linear fashion from today.

Story continues below advertisement

So let's play a little what if with Canada's bitumen oil, of which there is said to be a 200-year supply in Alberta.

It is landlocked. It has to pass through others' territories to get to customers. There are many pipelines now, and four more are ready to go or in planning: to the Pacific near Vancouver (Trans-Mountain) and Kitimat (Northern Gateway), the Gulf of Mexico (Keystone XL) and Saint John.

The Harper government Tuesday approved the Northern Gateway project. Government approval, however, is one thing; getting it built is another. Chances are that pipeline will be tied up for years in the courts as aboriginals contest it. And the population of British Columbia, or at least a chunk of it, doesn't want the pipeline either. Meeting the five conditions laid down by B.C. Premier Christy Clark will be hard to impossible. So Northern Gateway is likely a long shot.

Trans-Mountain? Opposition to twinning the existing line is very strong in the Lower Mainland, where the spectre of more tanker traffic is deeply unpopular. The federal government can implement new safety measures for pipelines and tankers, but people still fear an accident. Maybe the fear is irrational. Maybe the odds of something bad happening are so low that people should stop worrying. But they do, and that's a political reality. Put Trans-Mountain down as a maybe.

Keystone XL has been studied more than any pipeline in history. Still, it hasn't been approved. The closer President Barack Obama gets to the end of his time in office, the more he, like all presidents, begins to think of legacy. Here's a leader who has talked extensively about the challenge of climate change. Would his legacy – as he is defining it – be enhanced or hurt by approving Keystone XL? The forces in the U.S. favouring Keystone XL are formidable. Ultimately, one person with an eye on history will decide.

The west-to-east route across Canada has the best chance of success. But success is not assured, because no defined project has been submitted and opponents have not mobilized. It has the best political shot, what with a strongly federalist Premier in Quebec, a very eager New Brunswick government, and the chance to replace imported oil along the route. Chances of success: probable.

Rail, it is argued, could pick up at least some of the slack should some or all of these pipeline projects fail. Indeed, it could. But with the memory of Lac-Mégantic fresh in everyone's mind, how many towns and cities want a big upsurge in trains carrying crude oil rumbling through them? It's not a given that flowers will be strewn on the tracks in welcome.

Story continues below advertisement

What about price? Wise people keep saying oil prices will keep rising because new discoveries cost more to find and exploit than conventional oil. But what if that prediction is wrong? What if renewable energy really takes off, because, as is happening, wind and solar are becoming cheaper by the day and electric cars (see Tesla) become much more popular a decade from now and the Chinese, no slouches at long-term planning, arrive with electric vehicles for the masses. And so on. What if new technologies continue to unlock more conventional oil? Where would that leave bitumen?

At a recent conference in Ottawa, a representative of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, showed predictions (again, the uncertainties of the future) of oil prices in 2030: the International Energy Agency, around $115 (U.S.); Standard & Poor's, around $60; HSBC and Bloomberg, $50.

If the IEA is right, bitumen oil should be profitable; if the others are correct, where would that leave bitumen?

Maybe the future will unfold as most "experts" believe and our governments want; that is, it will be a lot like today. If not, however, then what?

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
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 ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies