On September 15, The Globe and Mail published an op-ed entitled “Why the Trans Mountain will be built”. Its author, Ted Morton, claims the project — a massive pipeline, tank farm and tanker traffic expansion — will go ahead because opposition to the project from the B.C. government is weak; the cancellation of the Petronas project means another unsustainable energy project must be delivered in its place; the Supreme Court recently ruled that a duty to consult First Nations doesn’t mean affected communities have a veto right over energy projects; and because Justin Trudeau fears Jason Kenney.
Clearly, these claims must resonate with many. That said, these arguments do not reflect recognition of Canada within a global context. Of particular importance are the global trend in oil demand and our growing understanding of uneven carbon dioxide distributions within Earth’s atmosphere.
Peak oil consumption coming soon
The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2017 International Energy Outlook, published on September 14, confirms what energy analysts have been saying for years: “Asia accounts for most of the increase in energy use” through 2040. Also, according to this report, oil is, and will remain, the most consumed energy source through 2040 — an important year because experts expect oil consumption will peak before then.
However, the International Energy Agency indicates that most growth in oil use will come from demand for plastic feedstock, which could be a disaster for oceans that are increasingly compromised due to improper disposal of plastics.
While the oceans issue is important, let us set it aside to focus on Canada’s desire to get the most out of bitumen extraction before demand for oil contracts in 2040, if not sooner (some say oil demand is set to plateau as early as 2030).
The government cannot win the debate on Indigenous rights or environmental sustainability based on its actions to date. This is because projects like Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Expansion Project simply do not align with reasonable interpretations of nation-to-nation relations or environmental sustainability that First Nations, and many Canadians in general, demand.
Growing market for bitumen?
We are, however, led to believe that there is a growing market for bitumen despite its environmental costs. In 2015, Environmental Science and Technology published a study that found “GHG emissions for gasoline and diesel produced from bitumen [have] about 18 and 21 per cent higher emissions than those derived from U.S. conventional crudes.”
This higher-carbon-dioxide-emissions profile also extends to the extraction side of bitumen. In 2012, the Pembina Institute released oil sands information, stating: “In a comparison of production emissions only, the per-barrel greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil sands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 220 to 350 per cent higher than conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States.”
As Paris Agreement signatories implement carbon budgets, the GHG emissions intensity of bitumen — the substance that the TMEP is designed to transport — will surely be taken into account. Bitumen’s high carbon footprint and general high cost make it less attractive than other fossil fuels. This is especially true at a time when carbon neutral fuels are looking increasingly viable to commercial interests.
Stuck in the past
Bitumen’s carbon intensity may also grow in importance as more countries appreciate the implications of uneven carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Researchers from Stanford have found that carbon dioxide domes form over cities and increase deaths related to air pollution. Such research recently formed the scientific basis for the U.S.’s first law to regulate carbon dioxide.
When it comes to increasing demand for oil in transportation and plastics, Kinder Morgan’s pipeline would keep Canadian development stuck in the past. Unsustainable projects, like oil sands expansion, lock us into subsidizing irrelevant products in a global market that is moving on to cleaner alternatives. Is that really what our government — which prides itself on climate action through the balancing of environmental and economic interests — wants?
If the transition to renewably electrified transport must involve fuel, let it be synthetic oil that is net neutral instead of products derived from diluted bitumen. And let future plastics be free from the careless disposal of single-use products that plague our oceans today.
Christine Leclerc is an award-winning author and aspiring climatologist who directs the Green Reeve initiative’s Case Against Kinder Morgan campaign. To learn more about the Case Against Kinder Morgan, visit their Facebook page.