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Pursuing the Pipeline Pipe-Dream


Prime Minister Harper’s view that Alberta’s tarsands will be the economic motor for the Canadian Energy Superpower is starting to unravel. Alberta faces a $6 billion revenue shortfall and will face a $4 billion deficit. Last year it predicted “only” an $800 million deficit. Premier Redford can’t displace responsibility on to a shortage of pipelines, for Alberta’s budgetary calculations can’t be based upon hypothetical scenarios. Nor can Saskatchewan’s, which projected a $95 million surplus, which has dropped to $9 million.

When the Keystone XL was put on hold before the US presidential election, Harper and Alberta quickly shifted their support to the Northern Gateway pipeline to the BC coast, to access the Asian market. But even if Harper could end-run environmental assessment and force en-route support, it would take up to 7 years to make the Asian market a reality. What might Alberta’s cumulative deficit look like then? What guarantees are there that the price of oil would stay the same? What if the price of carbon got added in, as it should? What guarantees are there that China won’t establish its own energy security plan, as is the US, which could be a net oil exporter by 2030?

Now, with such grass-roots opposition to Gateway, the oil-baron Premiers have shifted back to get recently re-elected Obama to approve the new Keystone XL route. That 1,800 km pipeline would go from Alberta, through Saskatchewan and six US states to Texas refineries. It would be owned by Trans-Canada which along with the uranium company, Cameco, co-owns Ontario’s nuclear company Bruce Power, the corporation that wanted to build nuclear plants along the North Saskatchewan River.

Letter to Obama

In January Premier Wall wrote President Obama, trying to convince him that the US needs Trans-Canada’s pipeline for energy security. He promoted Western Canadian tarsands graphically, covering an area the size of Florida and holding 98% of Canada’s oil reserves, which are the 3rd largest in the world. He argued that with Keystone, by 2020, 4 million barrels of oil a day, twice what now comes to the US from the Persian Gulf, could come from Canada.

But is he barking up the wrong tree? The corporate lobby asserts that new pipelines could mean another $27 billion for the Canadian oil market. Their complaint is that Canadian oil presently gets a lower price than the world price, by as much as $30 a barrel. At present, they argue, there is a glut of oil and insufficient capacity to pump the projected increased production from the tarsands. However, if anything, pumping even more oil to US refineries could further decrease the price. Furthermore the US is steadily increasing extraction of shale gas which, due to oversupply, further undercuts demand for oil. Meanwhile, production costs are much higher for Alberta’s tarsands than for the light oil coming from the Bakken area along the Saskatchewan-US border.

No wonder investors are starting to get nervous. According to the Jan. 14, 2013 MacLeans, Suncor is reviewing the planned expansion of three oilsands projects and Talisman Energy may make cuts of as much as 25% next year.

Hidden Carbon

The Jan. 17, 2013 Reuters story on Walls’ letter reported why some Canadian groups are lobbying against Keystone. Alberta’s Pembina Institute joined the Natural Resource Defense Council in opposition because “the project would foster increased oil sands development in Alberta and surging carbon emissions”. Oil Change International pointed out that, “emissions from a byproduct of refining oil sands, known as petroleum coke, have so far been unaccounted for”, noting “Petcoke can be burned like coal by utilities.” Their calculations show that when tarsand carbon is fully accounted for it “emits 5 percent to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than does coal.”

Meanwhile, Alberta’s Wildrose opposition leader Danielle Smith has been contriving an environmental rationale for expanding the tarsands, arguing that achieving carbon reduction is mostly about changing from coal plants to natural gas for generating electricity. Premier Wall’s letter doesn’t attempt such environmental spin; there’s no mention of the climate crisis at all. With the highest per capita carbon footprint in North America, even higher than Alberta’s, it was probably best to leave this stone unturned.

Honest Broker

MacLeans interviewed Premier Wall about his letter to Obama. Asked why Alberta’s Premier didn’t co-sign when it was co-signed by ten Republican governors, Wall said “We can be an honest broker because we don’t have commercial oil sands in our province”. This is a little righteous since later in that interview he indicates his concern is about “increasing the sustainability of oil sands development.”

Wall claimed his concern is pipeline capacity, getting the oil from the Saskatchewan-side of the Bakken area into the US market. Like Alberta’s Redford, he argues that if this was assured the price of oil would rise, alleging “This costs our treasury $300 million a year that we could use to pay our debt or invest in infrastructure”. But if revenue did rise it could just as easily be sucked up by future disaster relief from the growing extreme weather events resulting from continuing to pump more carbon into the biosphere.

Last year increased income taxes from a growing population luckily offset the unexpected costs of disaster relief. And while Saskatchewan remains the only province still projecting a surplus, the housing bubble is already showing cracks, with the sale of single-family homes in Regina dropping by 27% last year. The boom may be waning here too.

Wall’s Conversion?

In early March, Premier Wall announced his plan to visit Washington. It may come as a surprise that he said he wasn’t doing this just to lobby for the pipeline but, according to the Canadian Press, “to highlight green initiatives taking place in his province”. This shift came subsequent to his trip to see Premier Redford after her visit to Washington, where she heard that the Democratic administration is gravely concerned about the climate crisis. Henry Waxman, top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been quoted as saying “We know that climate change is happening now, we have to fight it now, and we must say no to this polluting pipeline now.” Has Wall perhaps had a change of heart?

Both premiers are scrambling to counter the growing US environmental lobby that has drawn a line in the sand over Keystone. In February 20,000 protesters brought their message to the White House and they weren’t demonized by Obama as “foreign-funded radicals” as Harper has done with Canadian environmental groups. And in spite of Wall’s claim to have no commercial motives, as the Canadian Press story says, “Saskatchewan has the potential for oil sand development and has already got investors in the wings”.

Redford promotes an environmentalist image of Alberta, emphasizing taxing heavy emitters, investing in “clean energy” and “beefing up environmental monitoring of the oil sands.” Sounding a bit like Wildrose, Premier Wall emphasizes “clean coal”. Crunching the numbers in a new way, for a new message, he says that $1,400 is being spent on this “per man, woman and child”; “I’m not sure of another jurisdiction in North American that can make that claim”. But this is a very big stretch as the Estevan-area $1.4 billion carbon sequestration project is linked to extracting more oil and releasing more carbon. What really stands out about Saskatchewan is not clean-coal but the fact that we still have the highest per capita carbon footprint in North America, hovering around 70 tonnes annually.

If the $1,400 per person was really being spent to move our energy system towards ecological sustainability, the Premier could brag in Washington. And think what the $7 billion earmarked for Keystone could do if it was redirected towards conversion to a truly sustainable energy plan. One step at a time!

R-Town March 8, 2013