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Bitumen Blues: How Tar Sands Are Challenging Leadership and Morals in Canada

“Sunny ways” has been Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s post-election mantra since he assumed the office in 2015. But his government’s environmental policies – particularly those surrounding the tar sands central to Canada’s oil industry – have overshadowed his political promises with dark clouds. In particular, the approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion stands to negate the progress towards combating climate change made on other fronts, including Trudeau’s announcement of a new pan-Canadian climate plan in December 2016. If Canada is to position itself as a global leader in environmental justice, its government must look deeper and stop the state-sanctioned extraction of tar sands oil.

Admittedly, Trudeau’s policies to date have set a markedly different tone from those of his predecessor. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2009, spurred by 2008 emissions levels that were 24.1 percent higher than in 1990. In contrast, Trudeau championed the Paris Agreement at COP21 as one of his first actions in office, and announced the creation of the Pan-Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change to meet the agreement’s targets. The plan scales up the price of carbon by $10 each year until 2022, from a base price of $10 per ton. It also puts in place a 2030 emissions reduction target equal to or above national targets for provinces that elect to implement a cap and trade system. But with 80 percent of Canada’s population already living in the four provinces with existing carbon pricing programs, the effectiveness of the new climate plan is limited by its scope. Though the framework is a tangible first step towards sustainability, the Trudeau government needs more than a somewhat symbolic carbon pricing scheme to demonstrate its environmental commitment.

Despite Trudeau’s message of clear and open government as leader of the Liberal Party since 2013, the Liberal government is pursuing two agendas on climate that are anything but clear. After the go-ahead on the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion was announced on November 29, 2016, Canada’s devotion to international climate agreements was supplanted in the headlines by pointed criticism of an apparent contradiction. It seemed ironic for the Canadian government to claim that it is taking action against climate change while continuing to endorse the extraction of bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands, a lucrative yet environmentally disastrous practice.

Given that Canada, with 10.3 percent of the world’s probed oil reserves, comes after only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela in terms of oil wealth, any governmental restraint on its extraction seems like a missed opportunity to capitalize on the land’s natural resources. But oil from Canada’s tar sands is much more harmful than oil extracted conventionally. Tar sands, also known as oil sands or bituminous sands, are a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay, water, and viscous petroleum, or bitumen. This sand, which makes up 97 percent of the oil in Canada’s reserves, is stickier and dirtier than conventional oil, polluting heavily when used. Greenhouse gas emissions from bitumen are 12 percent higher than those from average crude oil burned in the US; worse, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) – the ratio of the energy extracted to the input of energy used to extract and refine it – is five times lower than that of conventional oil.

Furthermore, refining bitumen yields a harmful by-product: petroleum coke, or petcoke. Petcoke is similar in appearance to and used in the same way as coal, but emits 15 percent more climate pollutants, largely due to its high sulfur content. Although petcoke is a virtual waste product in Canada and burning it is illegal in the US, Canadian bitumen is shipped to and refined in the US, and the resulting petcoke is exported to other countries – primarily to developing ones like China – as a cheap substitute for coal. China burns over 30 million metric tons of petcoke a year, importing from Canada both the dirty fuel itself and the environmental externalities that accompany it.

Kinder Morgan’s project offers a huge expansion in this tar-sands export trade – adding approximately 980 kilometers of new pipeline to increase the flow of bitumen from 300,000 barrels to up to 890,000 barrels a day. But tripling the total tar sands oil sent from Alberta to British Columbia doesn’t come without cost: It dangerously increases the risk of an oil spill due to the greater number of tankers that visit BC’s shores every year to collect the oil – from 60 to over 400. A study done by the University of British Columbia estimated the cost of cleaning up even a medium-sized oil spill at $2.4 billion and that of cleaning up a large-sized oil spill at a staggering $9.4 billion. Though supporters of the pipeline expansion say it outweighs the alternative of transporting bitumen by rail – a far riskier endeavor – a better solution to avoid the dangers of a spill would be to reduce economic reliance on the extraction of tar sands completely, no matter the mode of transport.

To some, Kinder Morgan’s expansion to the Trans Mountain Pipeline may appear to be a sound economic investment. After all, oil and gas combined make up the second highest class of exported goods, and job creation seems to trump the potential harms of the project. However, the pipeline expansion will create only a dismal 40 permanent jobs in Alberta and 50 in British Columbia. Worse, the temporary jobs created – estimated to be up to 12,000 at the project’s peak ­– will likely not be filled by workers from British Columbia and Alberta, instead drawn from Kinder Morgan’s workers elsewhere.

Rather than encouraging corporations to follow the money, the government should support the rapidly growing renewable energy industry instead, a far more environmentally and economically responsible choice especially in the long-run. While this may seem like a sacrifice of the potential profit gained by exporting more bitumen, the trade-off is far less when correcting for externalities, and preventing environmental despoliation both at home and abroad should be a foremost priority. Indeed, the government should invest in research into carbon-neutral fuels, the expansion of carbon capture and storage projects, and developing renewable energy technology.

Canada exported $56.8 billion worth of oil in 2015, but surprisingly also spent $13.8 billion importing it. Rather than importing oil to satisfy the nation’s energy needs, Canada should look to domestic renewables to satisfy demand. The fact that renewable energy makes up under 20 percent of the nation’s energy supply means there’s still huge potential for growth. Furthermore, Canada already has a foundation for renewable energy development: It harvests hydroelectric energy on its expansive coastline, and has opportunities for solar energy in central Canada and offshore wind farms. The expansion of such infrastructure would also create new employment opportunities, requiring laborers for construction and engineers for design. Expanding and utilizing Canada’s renewable energy infrastructure would benefit the job market and the environment, and would reduce the need to export carbon emissions to developing countries.

To position Canada as a country committed to sustainable environmental policy and to fulfill the Liberal administration’s promises to climate activists, the Canadian government needs to stop encouraging the expansion of tar sands extraction and instead encourage sustainable growth. Although Kinder Morgan is but one example of a company seeking to profit off of Alberta’s abundance of tar sands, when such an endeavor comes at the cost of environmental destruction and sets a precedent for continued despoliation, things don’t seem so sunny.