Climate change, Alberta politics, and hydrocarbon producers unwilling to act

The decision of Alberta’s Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties to merge threatens the ability of Rachel Notley’s NDP government to stay in power. Almost certainly, the climate change policies the new party would implement are worse than those currently being implemented by the NDP, though it doesn’t necessarily follow from that that those concerned about climate change should support Notley, particularly in her plans to build new pipelines and keep expanding the bitumen sands.

The NDP government’s proposal to expand bitumen sands production from 70 megatonnes to 100 is simply unacceptable morally, politically, and economically. Given how rich it is and how disproportionately large our contribution to climate change has been, Canada should have started cutting fossil fuel production decades ago. To keep enlarging it now is to contribute to a global political climate where nobody is willing to take appropriate action, even as the impacts and injuries arising from climate change become more and more serious.

The problem of die-hard jurisdictions is going to be a difficult one in climate politics, both when it comes to sub-national jurisdictions in federalist states like Canada and in terms of hydrocarbon-dependent countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.

It is hard to imagine a political change within these jurisdictions which will lead to them being willing to cut their fossil fuel production and use aggressively enough to contribute their fair share to a safe global pathway. Rather, it seems more likely that they will resist any plans to constrain climate change and demand compensation for any fossil fuels they are compelled to leave unburned.

Such intransigence could be overcome with sufficient concern and action by the world’s major economies. A handful of states collectively represent the majority of global fossil fuel consumption and thus a majority of demand for hydrocarbon producers. At the same time, domestic consumption is rising rapidly in many major fossil fuel producers, and there will probably be rogue states for a long time who are willing to buy and use cheap fossil fuels, regardless of the climatic consequences for others.

There seems little alternative but to try to constrain the fossil fuel output of recalcitrant jurisdictions externally, to the greatest extent possible. That’s part of why the fight against pipelines makes sense in North America, since both Alberta and jurisdictions active in hydraulic fracturing are unwilling to accept that they must leave most of their reserves underground. Unfortunately, such external resistance is virtually certain to breed resentment and feed the popularity of political parties who are determined to ignore the climate problem.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

14 thoughts on “Climate change, Alberta politics, and hydrocarbon producers unwilling to act”

  1. Oilsands growth makes it nearly impossible for Canada to meet Paris Agreement targets: report
    Petroleum industry disputes assumptions in report, which also says no new pipeline capacity is needed

    Why the oilsands matter to climate policy in Canada

    Over the last two decades, greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands have grown by over 150 per cent. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada’s number show, they’re going to keep right on growing, tripling from 30 million tonnes in 2005 to 92 million tonnes in 2020. That represents 12 per cent of Canada’s projected national emissions in 2020, more than the total for any province except Alberta and Ontario.

    That makes the oilsands sector very unique. In other parts of Canada’s economy, emissions are expected to grow much more slowly, or even to drop as technologies improve or federal or provincial emission reduction policies take effect. Most notably, electricity emissions are expected to fall by 31 million tonnes in Canada by 2020 in the absence of new government policies — while oilsands expansion is forecast to increase emissions by twice that much over the same period. (It’s worth noting that the federal government has already outlined a regulatory approach to coal-fired electricity detailed enough that it’s been included in Environment Canada’s “business as usual” projections, while the projections don’t include an equivalent federal policy approach for the oilsands.)

    Overall, Canada’s emissions are projected to increase by 54 million tonnes between 2005 and 2020 (Table 3, page 22). Emissions from the oilsands (including emissions from upgrading) are projected to grow by 62 million tonnes over the same period (Table 5, page 25). Because the ups and downs in emissions in other sectors largely cancel each other out, the bottom line is that virtually the entire projected increase in Canada’s emissions between 2005 and 2020 will come from the oilsands.

  2. It’s quite possible the merged party will do worse electorally. Adding ideologically demanding ultra right-wingers may force the party to adopt unpopular positions and drive away more moderate voters. Still, the effect is probably smaller than reducing vote splitting under first past the post.

  3. Merger history suggests Alberta’s United Conservative Party could be less than sum of its parts

    In their last election as individual parties in 2000, the PCs and Canadian Alliance combined for 38 per cent of the vote, just three points behind Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. The Liberals benefited from the split on the right — the Canadian Alliance took 25.5 per cent and the PCs 12 per cent — to secure a majority government.

    But in 2004, the Conservatives were unable to retain all the support of their two legacy parties. Their combined vote share fell by eight percentage points to 30 per cent.

    In raw ballots cast, the Conservatives were down 824,000 votes. Though there would have been some exchanges with other parties as well, the net result was that about one in five Canadians who cast a ballot for the Canadian Alliance or PCs in 2000 either stayed home or went elsewhere in 2004.

    A post-election survey by Pollara found that while 88 per cent of people who voted for the Canadian Alliance in 2000 had cast a ballot for the Conservatives in 2004, just 68 per cent of PCs did. A tenth of PCs voted for the Liberals and another tenth did not vote.

    Nevertheless, despite the drop in overall support the Conservatives benefited from no longer splitting their vote, winning 99 seats instead of the combined 78 seats the Canadian Alliance and PCs won in 2000.

    If something similar happens to the UCP, the 52 per cent the Alberta PCs and Wildrose combined for in 2015 would be reduced to about 41 per cent — matching the Alberta NDP’s vote share in that election.

  4. On Monday, Kenney told reporters in Calgary the number isn’t significant.

    “We’ve seen a few dozen PCs leave to join one of the two Liberal parties and we’ve seen perhaps a few dozen Wildrose leave to perhaps start their own alternative party,” Kenney said.

    “Those are folks who are not comfortable in a big tent. They’re not comfortable with a diversity of opinions. They want an echo chamber. They want to live in a partisan pup tent.”

  5. Saudi Arabia reveals reserves that have been shrouded in secrecy for decades — and it’s more oil than the world may ever need

    Saudi Arabia has finally silenced its peak-oil critics and simultaneously revived interest in its stalled US$2 trillion plan for a stock market float of state-owned producer Aramco. The kingdom revealed last week it has enough crude to pump at current rates for at least another 70 years.

    At the end of 2017, Saudi oil reserves stood at an eye-watering 268 billion barrels, up from previous estimates of 266 billion. By comparison, the U.K.’s remaining cache of retrievable oil under the seabed of the North Sea will be almost completely drained, probably after another couple of decades.

    The updated figures were no surprise for many experts. BP’s highly respected statistical review of world energy lists Saudi oil reserves at just over 266 billion barrels and Rystad Energy estimates that 276 billion barrels remain under its Arabian deserts. However, not everyone has been convinced by either the longevity, or scale, of Saudi’s remaining oil riches.

    The fact is oil markets are more likely to dry up before Aramco’s reserves of crude run out. Demand for oil remains robust despite the growing popularity of electric vehicles and the pressure of climate change forcing consumers to search for cleaner transportation fuels.

    Last year, the world consumed 100 million barrels per day for the first time in history and consumption is expected to continue rising at least through to 2040. However, beyond this date the outlook is harder to predict.

    Unless it wants to flood the market and send oil prices tumbling, Saudi Arabia’s best option if it wants to maximize its vast remaining hydrocarbon reserves could be to sell off increasingly larger shares of Aramco to international investors no later than 2021. Otherwise it runs the risk of having to leave much of its wealth stuck in the ground.

  6. Catherine Abreu, the lead Canadian watchdogging the UN process, also laid blame for the failure on big polluting countries which “have been able to ruthlessly advance the fossil fuel industry’s profit agenda over our collective futures.”

    “While Canadian negotiators were largely constructive on the ground, Canada has a lot of work to do at home to address the gap between its climate goals and its ongoing commitment to expand the fossil fuel industry, which got a lot of international attention here in Madrid,” said Abreu. She called on Canada’s environment minister to “increase Canada’s climate finance contributions and deliver on his government’s election promise to bring a new, more ambitious Paris pledge to COP26 in 2020.”

  7. Alberta’s secession movement spells trouble for Justin Trudeau

    The province probably won’t leave Canada. But it can get more autonomy

    The 700 people who gathered on a recent Saturday night at the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall in Edmonton, the capital of the western Canadian province of Alberta, came not to boogie but to vent. Baseball caps for sale bore such slogans as “Make Alberta Great Again”, “The West Wants Out” and “Wexit”. On stage, before a Canadian flag held between hockey sticks and pointed upside down, Peter Downing recited the grievances that drew the crowd: cancelled plans to build oil pipelines, subsidies paid to the rest of Canada and snobbery towards Alberta from the central Canadian provinces. The country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, would get what’s coming to him, Mr Downing pledged. Someone near the back muttered, “Hopefully, a bullet.”

    Though rich, Alberta has had a run of bad luck. It began when global oil prices fell in 2014, causing a recession and a jump in unemployment to a high of 9% in 2016 (see chart). The economy has since recovered, but Alberta still struggles to sell its oil. In part that is because existing pipelines are full. This forces producers to ship oil expensively by train to the United States, where it competes against cheaper American shale oil, or to store it. Extracting oil from Alberta’s oil sands consumes a lot of energy, and it is harder to refine than lighter crudes. Each barrel contributes more to climate change than does one from most other sources.

    Albertans blame many of these setbacks on Mr Trudeau. He is the son of a prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who during the 1970s and 1980s forced Alberta to sell its oil domestically at a discount to world prices. Although Mr Trudeau’s government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline and the project to expand it, which is to begin laying pipe this month, it has vetoed other pipeline projects. Canada needs to phase out the oil sands, he has said. The national carbon price, which will be imposed on Alberta after it scrapped its own scheme, is another insult to the oil patch. Albertans are just as angry about an overhaul of the law for giving regulatory approval for infrastructure projects, including pipelines. This gives the public more say and obliges builders to consider such issues as climate change and gender equity.

  8. The government’s climate policy takes its tone from John Howard, a former Liberal prime minister, who once dismissed calls for action as “the latest progressive cause” and a “substitute religion”. As the fires took hold in November, Michael McCormack, the deputy prime minister, blamed “inner-city raving lunatics” for linking them to climate policy and Australia’s coal industry. Coal, a big source of carbon emissions, is Australia’s second-biggest export, and is used to generate almost two-thirds of its electricity. The coalition abolished a carbon tax imposed by the former Labor government. In place of this market-driven mechanism it set up a public fund worth a$3.5bn ($2.5bn), partly to pay polluters to cut emissions.

    Critics say such measures are inadequate. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist, cited the fires when tweeting criticism of Australia’s climate policy. Mr Morrison retorted that he was “not here to try and impress people overseas”. As the fires raged, some countries at a recent un climate conference in Madrid grumbled about Australia’s apparent sleight of hand, involving the use of carbon credits linked to its emission-reduction targets for 2020 as a way of meeting its higher targets for 2030. Angus Taylor, the energy minister, argues that because Australia produces just 1.3% of global emissions, it “can’t single-handedly have a meaningful impact”.

  9. For context, the debt-servicing costs Alberta will pay in the 2021-22 fiscal year are presumed by government officials to be the highest in the province’s history. In that same year, it is expected to be larger than all the corporate tax revenue collected and also higher than all the royalties collected from oil production, according to the government.

  10. “As well, the Alberta government continues to try and offload contracts it signed to increase the amount of oil that can be exported by train. The contracts have so far cost the government about $2.4 billion. About 40 per cent of the total amount of contracts have been divested, so far.

    The outcome of the Keystone XL investment is still to be determined as the government and TC Energy decide their next steps. Government officials are not speculating about how much of the investment could be recovered or whether additional expenses could occur in winding down the project and potentially removing pipe from the ground.

    With these commitments and other projects, air quotes are needed when calling them investments, said Ron Kneebone, with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy.

    “They take gambles with our tax dollars. I wish they wouldn’t do that. I would rather they just establish a good investment climate for industry,” he said.”

  11. Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan “nation” is a last-ditch effort to rescue the fossil fuel industry

    It’s no coincidence that Scott Moe, the premier of Saskatchewan, announced his province is a “nation within a nation” as the oil and gas industry was being threatened yet again because of its role in the climate crisis.

    In his speech ahead of a recent leadership review, Moe described Justin Trudeau’s decision to cap the oil and gas industry’s green house gas emissions as “an outright attack on the energy industry in Saskatchewan.”

    The day after that Saskatchewan Party convention affirmed his leadership the “nation” talk spilled out during a radio talk show. No doubt a well-planned communications strategy.

    If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is right out of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s playbook.

    What they are really seeking, other than to become just like Quebec in relation to the federal government, is the power to regulate the petroleum industry, key to both their economies, as they see fit without any interference from the federal government.

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