Bill McKibben Slams Canadian Oil Sands Expansion

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No decision has been announced yet, but it appears likely the government of Canada is poised to approve a massive expansion of oil extraction in the Alberta tar sands. The Frontier mine proposed by Vancouver-based Teck Resources could use up a third of the Earth’s remaining carbon budget, climate activist Bill McKibben tells The Guardian. Even though the government has found it will have a negative impact on the environment and indigenous people, it still says the project is in the public interest.

Alberta tar sands from space
Image credit: NASA

According to Canada’s National Post, Frontier is an open-pit mine that would be built across 24,000 acres of boreal forest, 110 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. At full capacity, the project could churn out 260,000 barrels of bitumen every day, or roughly 9% of Canada’s daily oil sands production.

Alberta isn’t worried. It has imposed a 100 million ton per year cap on carbon emissions and the Frontier mine would only add about 5 million tons each and every year during its suggested useful life of about 45 years. Teck Resources brags that it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 300,000 tons since 2011. Gosh, that’s wonderful news, huh? 300,000 tons over 10 years versus 50 million tons over the next ten years. Environmental stewardship doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

And thank you Alberta for smugly assuming you have the right to subject every other person on Earth to a scourge that causes more illness and early death than any other and all in the name of greed. What a wonderful endorsement that is for your province. McKibben puts it like this:

Here’s how Justin Trudeau, recently re-elected as Canada’s prime minister, put it in a speech to cheering Texas oilmen a couple of years ago: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.” That is to say, Canada, which is 0.5% of the planet’s population, plans to use up nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget. Ottawa hides all this behind a series of pledges about “net-zero emissions by 2050” and so on, but they are empty promises. In the here-and-now they can’t rein themselves in. There’s oil in the ground and it must come out.

This is painfully hard to watch because it comes as the planet has supposedly reached a turning point. A series of remarkable young people (including Canadians such as Autumn Peltier) have captured the imagination of people around the world; scientists have issued ever sterner warnings; and the images of climate destruction show up in every newspaper. Canadians can see the Australian blazes on television; they should bring back memories of the devastating forest fires that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, in the heart of the tar sands complex, less than four years ago.

The only rational response would be to immediately stop the expansion of new fossil fuel projects. It’s true that we can’t get off oil and gas immediately; for the moment, oil wells continue to pump. But the Teck Frontier proposal is predicated on the idea that we’ll still need vast quantities of oil in 2066, when Greta Thunberg is about to hit retirement age. If an alcoholic assured you he was taking his condition very seriously, but also laying in a 40-year store of bourbon, you’d be entitled to doubt his sincerity, or at least to note his confusion. Oil has addled the Canadian ability to do basic math: more does not equal less, and 2066 is not any time soon. An emergency means you act now.

This is the same Justin Trudeau who had a warm and fuzzy moment with Greta Thunberg in New York recently while making pious mouthings about Canada honoring its commitments to the Paris climate accords. Can you say “hypocrite,” boys and girls? Yeah, we knew you could. Trudeau, who narrowly won re-election last year, is talking out of both sides of his mouth. As the National Post points out, a decision not to approve the Frontier mine will bring a torrent of criticism from Alberta while a decision to approve it will bring an equally fierce response from the eastern provinces, particularly Quebec. Here’s Bill McKibben’s final take:

In fairness, Canada has company here. For every territory making a sincere effort to kick fossil fuels (California, Scotland) there are other capitals just as paralyzed as Ottawa. Australia’s fires creep ever closer to the seat of government in Canberra, yet the prime minister, Scott Morrison, can’t seem to imagine any future for his nation other than mining more coal. Australia and Canada are both rich nations, their people highly educated, but they seem unable to control the zombie momentum of fossil fuels.

There’s obviously something hideous about watching the Trumps and the Putins of the world gleefully shred our future. But it’s disturbing in a different way to watch leaders pretend to care – a kind of gaslighting that can reduce you to numb nihilism. Trudeau, for all his charms, doesn’t get to have it both ways: if you can’t bring yourself to stop a brand-new tar sands mine then you’re not a climate leader.

Even if the government approves the new mine, there is no guarantee Teck Resources will build it. According to the National Post, in order for it break even, oil prices need to be in the $75 per barrel range and to be profitable, oil prices will need to be substantially higher. The current price of oil in the US is around $50 a barrel. Teck Resources would have to be convinced oil prices will go up and stay up for decades before this project would make economic sense.

As the divestment movement gathers momentum and financial companies like Blackrock make bolder statements about rethinking the world’s commitments to fossil fuels, oil companies are under increasing pressure. Solar, wind, hydro, and other renewables are displacing fossil fuels for energy generation, putting downward pressure on prices. As the transportation sector continues to transition to electric vehicles, oil prices will be squeezed even more.

In the end, dollars not dreams will decide the outcome. Canada can approve all the fossil fuel extraction schemes it wants, but that is no guarantee any of them will get built. The price advantage that once made fossil fuels dominant is shrinking, and that will change everything.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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