When did it become taboo to acknowledge publicly that oil generally—and bitumen in particular—is a finite non-renewable resource? Has truthiness in Alberta really reached a point where we have now collectively decided that fossil fuels will last forever and that everyone in the world will want to buy them from us for eternity?
At a town hall in Ontario last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the unforgivable sin of suggesting that at some point in the future—not tomorrow or in the short-term—we will have to phase out bitumen production. In his comments he clearly acknowledged that this phase-out is something that will have to happen over a very long time and that must be carefully managed.
It is worth pointing out that Justin Trudeau recently approved two new pipelines that will guarantee the continued expansion of bitumen production in the short to medium term, and that according to experts like earth scientist David Hughes, will push emissions from bitumen production well beyond the limits set by the Alberta government and the targets agreed to internationally by the federal government.
Apparently, however, none of that matters in here, as both the Alberta government and the province’s angry far right reacted to Trudeau’s comments with a level of anger and outrage suggesting this was one of the greatest betrayals ever committed against the province.
Wildrose leader Brian Jean offered himself and all four million Albertans up as some form of human barricade that would stop Trudeau—or anyone else for that matter—from ever phasing out Alberta’s bitumen production.
PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney also responded quickly, taking to twitter to suggest that it was absurd for the prime minister to even suggest that at some point we should seek to end our dependence on fossil fuels, adding “how will Justin Trudeau fly to private Caribbean islands? Planes & helicopters fuelled by pixie dust?”
Even Premier Rachel Notley got in on the game reiterating her view that “Oil and gas will help power the global economy for generations to come,” and, “We’re not going anywhere any time soon.”
The response to Trudeau’s comments from all sides of the Alberta political spectrum, and from the mainstream media, was unequivocal: there shall be no talk ever of phasing out bitumen production or of transitioning off fossil fuels.
As much as it may be admirable to see Alberta’s politicians speaking with one voice, the message being delivered is quite frightening and disturbing in terms of its denial of reality and its disregard for the long-term well-being and sustainability of Alberta’s workers and the economy.
We call oil and bitumen non-renewable resources for a reason—they are finite resources that will not regenerate. By definition this means that at some point in the future they will no longer be there for us to exploit. As with any non-renewable resource, the more you deplete your supply, the harder and more expensive it becomes to access remaining supplies.
Human ingenuity being what it is, it is absurd to believe that there will be no discoveries or innovation in the mid- to long-term that will make the ongoing extraction of bitumen completely uneconomic. Just in the last few years we have seen the significant impact that shale fracking has had on the economic viability of both Alberta bitumen and natural gas. It is frankly ironic to see the same politicians who claimed that a four-and-a-half cent per litre carbon tax on gasoline would ruin the economy then suggest that people will continue to by our bitumen forever regardless of how high the price goes.
There is also the reality that governments all over the world are seeking to implement policies and measures that will reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. For most countries these plans are still in the early stages, but as they begin to take hold over time, it is fully likely that demand for our resource will wane.
History, science, and economics all suggest a future in which people no longer want, need, or can afford our bitumen. It is irresponsible for our elected leaders to pretend otherwise. Unless these politicians begin acknowledging the fact that bitumen production will phase out at some point, either through local policy or through a drop off of global demand, we will be completely unprepared when that point in time arrives. Beginning a concerted process of transition and scale-down today on the other hand, will mean that when the time arrives we will still be able to have jobs, government revenues, and a thriving economy into the future. Burying our heads in the sand and ‘defending the oilsands’ accomplishes none of that. V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.