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opinion

David Tabachnick is a professor of political science at Nipissing University.

We won't have to wait much longer to see how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to apply his grand claim that "we're back" to the climate change file. Catherine McKenna, his Environment and Climate Change Minister, will be on point at the United Nations conference in Paris later this month to explain how Canada's Conservative-era status as "an emerging energy superpower" will transform to meet "our international obligations to protect the planet."

Whether it's with a carbon tax, cap-and-trade or some hybrid system, the Liberals see the solution in a price on carbon emissions. This market-oriented strategy is suppose to encourage the energy sector to move away from carbon-intensive projects, such as the oil sands, and toward new green technologies. But whatever the plan, it's unlikely that it will result in drastic cuts to fossil-fuel production. Instead, Big Oil will embrace big carbon.

Already, and without much fanfare, Canada has become a leading power in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. In 2014, Saskatchewan's Boundary Dam Project came on line, touted as the "world's first post-combustion coal-fired CCS project." The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) began injecting carbon dioxide into the Clive Oil Reservoir earlier this year. And at the beginning of this month, the $1.35-billion Quest project opened, becoming the world's first oil sands CCS facility. The Alberta government claims that once fully operational, "these [two] projects will capture a combined 2.76 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to the yearly emissions from 550,000 cars."

While very expensive, there are dozens of other CCS projects now up and running and many more in development around the world. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association boldly claims that these technologies will eventually capture up to 90 per cent of CO2 emissions produced from electricity generation and other industrial processes. It should come as no surprise that the leading members of the association include Chevron, British Petroleum and Statoil, or that Exxon is by far the biggest owner of patents for CCS.

While partly a response to carbon-pricing regimes, the real benefit of investing in this technology is "enhanced oil recovery." The injected carbon works in a similar way as hydraulic fracturing fluid. The backers of the ACTL forecast that it will allow for the production of an additional one billion barrels of light crude oil.

This approach has sparked a newer, third debate on climate change. Overwhelming scientific evidence has long since settled the first debate on whether climate change actually exists. The second debate over anthropogenic climate change has been similarly settled, except perhaps in the shrinking bubble of die-hard deniers. But this third debate has just started.

Greenpeace International has called carbon capture and storage "a dangerous distraction in the fight against climate change … developed to the detriment of sustainable solutions." So, while many environmentalists see the answer in a civilizational shift to a lower-energy lifestyle backed by renewables, the CCS crowd presents a very different approach. For them, instead of drinking less, we will develop a better hangover cure.

The new government has yet to stake out a clear position in this new debate. Mr. Trudeau's promise to work with the provinces in order to hammer out a climate-change policy within 90 days of the Paris conference will make matters even more complicated, with low-carbon-intensive provinces such as Ontario unlikely to find easy agreement with their counterparts out west.

For good or for ill, the change in federal government probably won't shift us from our course to becoming an energy superpower. So, while we may take some comfort and pride that we are now part of the global consensus, we might not end up embracing very much real change after all.