Canada's energy policy, and its increasingly fact-free discourse, demands a rethink
Written by: Mac Van Wielingen
The Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail
Mac Van Wielingen is the Calgary-based founding partner of ARC Financial, the largest energy-focused private-equity firm in Canada, and the founder and chair of Viewpoint Group.
I am a committed, first-generation Canadian. I care deeply for this country that gave my parents a new start after Canada liberated the Netherlands in the Second World War. And, I should say, I accept the science of climate change; I believe we need solution-focused change on both the production and consumption of fossil fuels.
But I am deeply concerned about the future of the country, amid the alarming polarization in the discourse on energy development.
This debate – more specifically, the one around recent legislative initiatives such as Bill C-48 and Bill C-69 – is clear evidence that we’ve moved away from certain basic facts and this country’s energy policy needs a rethink. Contrary to what many believe, oil demand has not peaked; in fact, within the context of a global shift to a low-carbon future, it will continue to grow over the next 10 to 20 years, according to the International Energy Agency, largely driven by an increasing standard of living in developing countries.
Canada – as the fourth-largest oil exporter in the world – is positioned to play an important role in supplying the developing world. That’s certainly to our benefit: Within Canada, our oil-and-gas-extraction and pipeline industry is the second largest subsector of the economy (based on GDP), employing 500,000 people across the country. It is also Canada’s largest employer of Indigenous peoples.
But it’s not enough to simply talk about the size and economic importance of the energy sector. It is also important to understand that Canada’s environmental, social and governance standards are world-class.
The commitment to upholding the highest standards for energy development includes our pipeline system, which is the safest in the world. When measured relative to production, pipeline incidents in Canada are about one-tenth that of the United States’. We also have an enviable marine safety record: There are about 20,000 tanker movements a year, with 85 per cent taking place on the east coast, and there have been no significant oil-tanker spills.
When it comes to the oil sands, though, the gap between reality and perception is vast. Despite the criticism of the oil sands over greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, most people are surprised to learn that our oil sands emissions account for only 0.15 per cent of global emissions. In addition, despite this being a small number on a global basis, the industry has been focused on reducing its GHG output; emissions per barrel have decreased by 29 per cent between 2000 and 2016, and a report by research firm IHS Markit expects that will fall by another 16 per cent to 23 per cent by 2030. Progress is becoming truly profound. New oil sands projects are generating GHG emissions that are on par with – or less than – the average barrel refined in the United States. So on what basis, then, can it be argued that we should curtail production when our emissions are at the same level as other producers?
Further, if the oil sands were phased out, as some are advocating, the lost volumes would merely be replaced by other heavy oil suppliers, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela and Mexico. ARC and Viewpoint have calculated that the net reduction in global GHGs would be 0.03 per cent if Canada’s entire oil sands stopped production. It’s insignificant, and at best, symbolic.
Where is the moral justification to allow other oil suppliers – with little to no environmental or regulatory oversight, an indifferent commitment to the climate-change fight and, in some cases, a record of human-rights abuses, poor labour standards and troubled governance – to capture markets that we can supply, with our world-class standards and high ethical approach?
Curtailing the growth of Canada's energy sector only translates into lost jobs and a diminished financial capacity to support our own social prosperity. Not only that, it curtails the very investment in research and development that can further improve our environmental performance to support the global transition into low-carbon era.
The media, activists, politicians and our own tendency to oversimplify complex arguments have driven us to position this as a black or white issue. You are either an environmentalist or not; pro-oil and gas, or not. But my extensive research, along with my own personal experience, tells me we can be both.
We do face one stark choice, however. We can contain, curtail, and dismantle our leading industry. Or we can consider the facts, and pursue a future for our oil-and-gas sector that is both moral and smart, demonstrating a commitment to long-term energy leadership in all facets of the industry, including the environment.
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