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Emphasis on oil sands called a ‘historic mistake for Canada’

Economist Jeremy Rifkin

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A high-profile adviser on renewable energy to the European Union says Canada is making a huge mistake in placing so much emphasis on the oil sands as the key component of the country's energy policy.

Jeremy Rifkin, a Maryland-based author and consultant, said in an interview Tuesday that focusing on the oil sands "is putting [Canada] back in the 20th century, when Europe and Asia are absolutely moving into the 21st century." Because other economies are shifting dramatically to renewable energy, he said, "this is a really, really historic mistake for Canada.....[It] could potentially become a second tier country."

Mr. Rifkin helped design the EU's long-term sustainability plan, which is in the early stages of being implemented across the continent.

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He said the oil industry will never be able to remove itself from a growth-collapse cycle that is created by gyrating oil prices, and so it needs to be phased out. While the industry will have to be kept on "life support" during the transition to renewables, over time new technologies will generate a far superior return on investment.

It is a "curse" to be one-resource economy, Mr. Rifkin said. At the same time, "Canada is [now] the bad guy" because of the negative reputation of the oil sands and its contribution to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mr. Rifkin calls the European approach a "third industrial revolution." It includes a sharp shift to renewable energy, which will be collected mainly through massive numbers of wind, solar, geothermal and biomass generators distributed broadly – and often attached to buildings. Hydrogen and other storage technologies will ensure the power is available when it is needed, and Internet-like technology will control the complex distribution of power. Electric and fuel cell cars will draw power from that grid.

The shift to this kind of distributed, clean power is absolutely crucial to prevent a devastating increase in the planet's temperature, and a mass extinction of human beings, Mr. Rifkin argued at a Toronto hydrogen conference on Tuesday. "We have to be off carbon in 30 years," he said.

He said European enthusiasm for the new distributed power mode will help jump-start the moribund economies of that continent and create thousands of jobs. The United States, by contrast, has promoted individual pilot projects in an unconnected way, he said, and will not get the same economic benefits as Europe.

Mr. Rifkin said he is encouraged, however, by the efforts by groups of state governors and provincial premiers in the Eastern and Western edges of the continent, who are attempting to develop cross-border electrical grids. This is creating a "de facto continental union" for power systems, he said.

Ontario's feed-in-tariff program, which pays high prices for renewable power fed into its power grid, is also an important first step, Mr. Rifkin said. But the province hasn't put enough emphasis on energy storage or the move to a "smart" electrical grid, he added.

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