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The House of Cards: Why Alberta should quit oil after Keystone XL

By Christian Lowry, February 8 2021—

The Keystone XL pipeline was generally popular among Canadians, and among Albertans in particular. In 2017, one poll showed that the project was supported by 48 per cent of Canadians (including 77 per cent of Albertans) and only opposed by 33 per cent. However, Canadian popular opinion means little for American politics.

On Jan. 21, newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed an executive order, revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, cancelling the entire project. Premier Jason Kenney, whose United Conservative Party government had committed $7.5 billion to the project through investments and loan guarantees, called Biden’s decision a “gut punch.” Recently, his government also funded a dysfunctional inquiry (which missed several deadlines) into political groups expressing hostility to Alberta’s oil industry, which featured flagrant displays of climate change denialism and unproven conspiratorial accusations about a worldwide Marxist plot to damage the Albertan oil industry.

Such populist rhetoric portrays Alberta as an embattled province under siege by progressive forces. Yet the case can be made that the people of Alberta, Canada, and the rest of the world are the actual victims — at the hands of Alberta’s unyielding oil industry and its subservient politicians. Although it is home to just 11.3 per cent of Canada’s population, it is responsible for 37.3 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions. The petroleum industry of a country that is warming at twice the global rate remains no small matter for the world. As the richest province in a developed country and in a world facing increasing natural disasters with at least 150 million projected climate refugees by 2050 due to rising sea levels, Alberta is not the victim, it is the victimizer. The Keystone XL debacle gives Albertans a long overdue opportunity to reconsider their connection with the province’s powerful oil industry.

In light of Keystone XL’s cancellation, it is often alleged that pipeline construction creates jobs. While that may be true in the short term, we are rarely asked to consider what happens once the pipeline is complete. To say that something “creates jobs” tells us nothing about the permanence, security, safety or compensation of those jobs. It seems as though many self-described “job creators” and their supporters are also vicious opponents of unions — one of the greatest tools workers have to protect themselves from exploitation. Investing in more labour-intensive forms of transmission, such as road and rail transport, will ultimately create more jobs than pipelines that transport petroleum automatically. 

The “job creators” also tell us nothing about the safety of the products enabled by their work. Between 1986 and 2013, North American pipeline accidents have caused 500 deaths, 2,300 injuries and over 3 million gallons of spillage into the environment. On average, 76,000 barrels leak from pipelines annually, of which 31,000, or 47 per cent, cannot be recovered. Unlike road and rail transportation of oil, pipelines concentrate the effects of spills in specific areas. Although advocates of pipelines regularly argue that they are safer than other means of transporting oil — a debatable assertion at best, the fundamental drawback always seems to be the reliance on oil itself. To say that Method A of transporting oil is good because Method B is even worse is hardly an argument in favour of retaining oil, particularly when other options are available. 

Advocates for the petroleum industry also argue that Alberta’s oil, and its resulting economic fruit, is “ethical” compared to those of other oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia. This story alleges that if we shore up Alberta’s oil sector, we can effectively boycott those of unfree countries and force them to change their harmful human rights records. However, while these countries are guilty of imposing major constraints on the civil liberties of their citizens, that reality has not stopped both Liberal and Conservative federal governments from sending military aid to ruthless petro-states in the past.

The Albertan government has also not prevented the Saudi government from buying stakes in Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Suncor Energy, two of the province’s largest energy companies. Further, there is no reason why a transition to green energy cannot also rob repressive regimes of helpful proceeds from their natural resources. By arguing for “ethical oil,” the government and its apologists assume that oil’s preeminence is a foregone conclusion and refuse to consider other and more ethical policy options. It’s easy to believe one is right if one refuses to even hear about other options. Aside from foreign policy concerns, I can’t discern anything ethical about the exploitation of a dangerous resource that drives climate change, poisons — or threatens to poison — the water supply of thousands — many of whom are indigenous, or the practice of gambling the hundreds of thousands of Albertan livelihoods on a teetering industry with highly unpredictable outcomes in the global market.

Unfortunately, a prominent flaw of environmentalist discourse in Canadian politics is its emphasis on winning the liberal culture war at the expense of workers in the fossil fuel industry. Throughout much of Canada, Albertans are often regarded as reactionary, backward, overly conservative, paranoid and all other kinds of unhelpful demonization. This blanket condemnation of Albertans has allowed the UCP to tap into feelings of resentment and exclusion harbored within the province. Realistically, most people can only work in available jobs, and in oil-rich Alberta, those jobs heavily favour the petroleum industry compared to other provinces. It makes no sense to attack the ordinary working person for caring about their living and worrying about a future without it. 

Whether they are liberal or conservative, left or right, Albertan workers deserve a clearly articulated, stable and supportive transition to green energy work. Even for purely political reasons, it will be impossible and impractical for current oil workers to support economic diversification that does not provide for their best interests. It is important for environmentalists to speak the language of jobs, growth and prosperity as conservative politicians have successfully done for decades. 

For these reasons, it is important to quickly revisit some of the benefits of economic diversification for Albertan workers. Renewable, non-emitting resources such as wind and solar can be exploited almost anywhere, allowing energy workers to stay closer to their communities. Their cleanliness also detaches their workforce from the hazards and stigma of exploiting and transporting pollutants. Furthermore, since they are infinite in availability, they cannot be subject to overproduction or underproduction as petroleum is. As a result, jobs in renewable energy sectors are much more stable than in the petroleum industry. Due to the inherent instability and continuing decline of the oil and gas industries, its workers are poorly compensated and more expendable to employers. Thus, the median salary of a Canadian oil and gas worker is C$42,900 per year, compared to C$76,572 per year for a renewable energy worker. The clean energy sector is also growing rapidly. In 2017, the clean energy sector employed 298,000 people across Canada, compared to 199,780 in the oil, gas, quarrying, and mining industries combined. As of 2018, 82 per cent of Canada’s total electricity supply was generated by non-emitting sources — 66 per cent came from both non-emitting and renewable sources.

To preserve either the economy or the environment, as oil advocates would have us do, is a false choice — as Canada’s burgeoning clean energy sector indicates, we can choose to preserve both. Thus, despite the presently widespread anger in Alberta at the United States’ cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline, the resolution to the problem is within sight. The only question is whether the Alberta government will have the political and moral courage to implement it. As long as the UCP remains in power, the answer is hardly reassuring. Nonetheless, for the sake of Alberta and the wider planet, it is a decision that must be made.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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