By Jim Harding
An overwhelming majority of us Westerners do not support the post-election hype about separation. It is fairly easy, with the emotional contagion of social media, to amass simplistic support for Wexit. But it would be going from the frying pan of the crash in the international oil market, into a political firestorm, if the two major oil-exporting provinces seriously embarked on secession.
And, once again, colonial mentality has raised its ugly head, ignoring that Indigenous peoples signed treaties with Canada before Saskatchewan and Alberta existed.
It is irresponsible for Premiers Moe and Kenney to exploit this sentiment. Threatening separation does nothing to address the reasons for the fearful and angry populism or find a positive way forward. It is also cheap politics to blame Trudeau for almost everything.
Kenney successfully used this blame game to unite the right to replace Notley’s NDP, and it looks like Moe may use this in Saskatchewan’s 2020 election. Kenney blamed Trudeau for Alberta making deep cuts to services and is now stoking “independence”.
Even if this seems like “smart politics”, it is not smart.
The oil price crash has roots long before Trudeau was even an MP. Western provinces adamantly supported NAFTA, which guaranteed access to the huge U.S. energy market. Due to shale oil, the U.S. is now the world’s largest oil producer and a major exporter; 8th worldwide after a 300% increase since 2014. Holding most political cards, Harper couldn’t salvage Alberta as a perpetual Petro State.
Western Premiers now try to blame the downturn on the lack of pipelines, ignoring that in spite of widespread opposition, Keystone XL and Line-3, from Alberta through Saskatchewan to the U.S., are approved. Keystone will go to Gulf Coast refineries that could handle Alberta’s diluted bitumen (dilbit), but there may increasingly be lower-cost supplies available to meet demand. Meanwhile, will Kenney want to blame Trudeau for the recent oil spill in the new North Dakota Keystone pipeline, which further slowed the flow of Alberta’s oil?
Divestment in Alberta’s tar sands continues. Petro-Canada divested in 2016, before the crash; Shell got out in 2017; Europe’s largest bank, HSBC, did so in 2018; and Norway’s Pension Fund recently divested, saying the tar sands were as climate damaging as coal plants. Kinder-Morgan is divesting since selling its pipeline to the feds. This trend was in place before Encana moved south.
The tar-sands are competing with lower-cost, lower-carbon, more accessible crude oil. It is wishful thinking that an expanded global market can rebound Alberta’s oil industry. Even with the crash, and all the blaming, Canada remains the world’s 4th largest exporter. And the vast majority goes straight south.
Endless pipelines, with huge carbon footprints, going in all directions to find the few refineries that may want to refine Alberta’s energy-intensive dilbit is not only a pipedream but a climate nightmare. The original Trans-Mountain is presently pumping 300,000 barrels a day from Alberta, which goes to Washington for refining and not to a higher-priced offshore market. Anyway, Burnaby’s Terminal can’t handle the largest tankers that are now moving oil. A 4,600 km Energy East pipeline pumping Alberta dilbit to the East Coast, would never compete with the much more cheaply refined Middle East oil. And in spite of what Scheer claims, China is not going to shut down its coal plants by importing Canada’s fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) just released a report that worldwide, low-cost, off-shore wind can produce eleven times the electricity that we presently use globally. Europe presently leads the way but China is positioned for a 25-fold increase.
Making the overly oil-dependent West “great again” at any climate cost is unacceptable. In spite of its support for carbon pricing, Alberta’s Notley Government ended up setting a tar sands emissions cap of 100 Mt per year. Otherwise the tar sands were even less attractive to big investors. Emissions are underreported, but the official figure of 70 Mt a year, should be a wake-up call. This is almost as much as from all Saskatchewan (76 Mt).
The elephant always in the room is the steadily growing emissions in the West, which hatched Wexit. In 2005, Alberta and Saskatchewan emitted 299 million or mega-tonnes (Mt), which was 132 less than the rest of Canada, which then emitted 431 Mt. By 2017, with only 15% of the population, emissions from the angry oil provinces were up to 351 Mt, almost as much as the rest of Canada (365 Mt), where emissions have been steadily falling. While the climate emergency ramps up and the Paris target is approaching, we are going in different directions.
The anti-carbon tax, pro-pipeline populism encouraged by the Conservatives had the desired political effect. The federal parties concerned about climate likely didn’t want to highlight the West’s growing emissions and be seen as “poking” these provinces. Realizing there was no guarantee that nervous investors would back TMX, the feds took over this stalled project. Ironically, with a minority Liberal government and the Conservative sweep in the West, we still have an angry call for separation.
Western populism has sometimes challenged Canada to progress. Co-operative populism helped get us Medicare and the Reform Party challenged government to be more transparent and accountable. But not in this instance!
The vast majority of us in the West who oppose separation, now need to seriously confront our provincial leaders’ unwillingness to quickly transition to a much lower carbon economy. With steadily growing emissions, directly tied to fossil fuels, those of us in Saskatchewan and Alberta now have the highest per capita carbon footprint on the planet. Shame on us!
Moe and Kenney are hiding behind huge oil subsidies when they attack Trudeau. A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report puts global subsidies near 5 trillion dollars a year. Canada’s are around 60 billion. The IMF notes that efficient carbon pricing, accounting for real supply costs, including environmental, would reduce global emissions by over one-quarter. And reduce premature deaths from toxic air pollution by nearly 50%. Meanwhile, after a majority of Canadians voted for parties supporting carbon pricing, Premier Moe had the audacity to call on the federal government to cancel the carbon tax. Really?!
The demonization of carbon pricing and call for more pipelines, or else we will separate, is a cover for the failure of these provinces, including under the NDP, to take the climate crisis seriously. Wanting to hang on to the fantasy of an endless oil-revenue boom, some of my neighbours who personally benefitted from boom times, and perhaps carried a large debt into the bust, understandably feel alienated. There were many more people who were already socio-economically alienated, who did not benefit from the boom.
Certainly, we need to ensure there is a just transition for fossil-fuel workers to a low-carbon world. But many in the West, perhaps already a silent majority, want us to start taking responsibility for our massive emissions and join with the rest of Canada to quickly do something about this.
Author and activist Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies who lives in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley
P.O. Box 2566, Fort Qu’Appelle, SK