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
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
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(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,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); } //

Parliamentary leader of the Green Party Elizabeth May speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on February 19, 2020. May’s warning that 'oil is dead' is not just wrong, it ignores the lesson that the coronavirus crisis offered.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The problem with Elizabeth May’s warning that “oil is dead” is not just that she’s wrong. It is that she ignored the lesson that the coronavirus crisis offered about oil, and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

There was a strange triumphalism in Ms. May’s obituary for the Canadian oil industry, when she said “the idea that we’ve got this product that everyone wants is delusional.”

That sparked angry reaction from the oil patch, but it is climate-change activists who should tell Ms. May she got it wrong.

Story continues below advertisement

If anything, the coronavirus crisis made it clearer that people campaigning to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions should focus their attention on demand. A lot of activism in Canada has focused on supply – on bottling up the supply of oil by blocking pipelines and projects. But crisis has shown us demand is king.

The main point Ms. May was making should not surprise anyone: She was arguing, as she long has, that government should not bail out stricken oil companies. And she argued those companies are doomed anyway.

Certainly, it is tough times in Canada’s oil patch. Oil prices are a cut above rock bottom. Canadian oil sands producers tend to have relatively high break-even costs, so they have not only cut back investment but production, too.

Are they doomed? Well, they’re not dead yet. Prices might bounce back. Oil sands producers have been reducing costs, so the industry might cope with lower prices. And sure, they might remain low for a long time.

Global demand for oil, however, will certainly bounce back, at least in the medium term. And if oil prices remain low, that will only encourage the burning of fossil fuels presumably with higher greenhouse-gas emissions.

That result would be bad for Canada’s economy and bad for climate change. No one should cheer.

Why should we expect global demand for oil to bounce back? Because of the reason for the decline. People didn’t suddenly switch to different sources of energy. Coronavirus forced people to stay home, which meant industries, and vehicles, were idled. The U.S. Energy Information Administration lowered its projection for oil consumption in 2020 from 101 million barrels a day to 92.6 million barrels a day. At some point, people will drive again and industries will relaunch. Demand for oil already seems to be rising.

Story continues below advertisement

Even before coronavirus, there was a lot of oil sloshing around. The rapid rise of U.S. shale oil production meant a big source of supply came into the world in the past decade, and that’s one reason prices fell in 2014.

Back in early March, when global demand for oil was only expected to fall by a few percentage points, the world’s major producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia, squabbled over cutting production to keep prices up. Saudi Arabia responded by promising to open the taps, sending prices lower. That should illustrate that there is no overall shortage of supply.

It should remind us that cutting off Canadian oil by blocking pipelines will at best offer marginal advances on emissions. There are other sources of oil.

“Cutting off supply isn’t going to be the limiting step. That isn’t going to get us there,” said Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa. “Changing demand is.”

We have seen the powerful impact of a change in demand: Greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to fall dramatically in 2020, perhaps by 8 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency.

Again, that will change quickly, but it shows policies aimed at altering demand – electric vehicles, building retrofits, and so on – would have real impact on emissions. Emissions from cars are almost a quarter of the total in Canada. Demand-side policies would also have to encourage industry, including the oil industry, to reduce emissions, but the goal isn’t to stop oil production. It’s worth noting the goal is to reduce emissions, not oil.

Story continues below advertisement

That kind of approach alters the burden-sharing within Canada, too. It doesn’t argue that reducing emissions from Alberta’s oil sands comes before reducing emissions from Ontario and Quebec cars. The goal, after all, is to reduce emissions with the most economic benefits.

Ms. May, of course, promotes electric cars, too – as well as policies to block pipelines and oil projects and winding down the oil sands in 10 years. Why tell us both that we need to do that, and that oil is dead?

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

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 the author of this article:

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 If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

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 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 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

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: 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