Every political project needs a good slogan.
Yes, We Can. Real Change. Make America Great Again. Not Me, Us.
With the right campaign, the right messaging, the right context, otherwise empty words become prompts for target audiences to recall — or even piece together — complex political narratives.
A good slogan, in other words, elicits a story.
Canada’s oil and gas industry and its allies have lodged a powerful story in the political conversation to justify the sector’s continued expansion during the climate crisis. And it distills down to a simple phrase, just six simple words that work well adorning merchandise, closing out strangely irascible videos or lifting speeches at Conservative conventions to an impassioned climax: The World Needs More Canadian Energy.
The tale that slogan is meant to evoke goes something like this: The world is not going to stop using fossil fuels any time soon — demand is going to remain high for a long time, and the oil and gas will have to come from somewhere. The obvious choice, and the moral one, is to source them from a place with a strong record on the environment, human rights, labour, and democracy, which excludes Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia, leaving Canada as the number one supplier. Or, more simply, The World Needs More Canadian Energy.
It's stirring, comforting, nationalistic. And one can do much with it, like using it to suggest that anti–tar sands activists have fallen for a foreign-funded conspiracy (why else would they oppose something so “ethical”?) or to warn potential U.S. presidents that North America would be dependent for energy on authoritarian states without Alberta oil and gas.
But the story and its slogan have an even more important use: to prevent the decisions we need to make to avoid the worst of climate change. In late July, Carbon Tracker Initiative offered a reminder of what these decisions will look like, arguing in a report that all of the proposed new tar sands pipelines from western Canada, in particular Keystone XL and the Trans Mountain expansion, are antithetical to a world hoping to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2 C. But it’s hard to imagine this having much direct effect on Canadian policy as long as the story remains part of our political conversation.
And so it’s worth turning to that story to consider whether it holds up, and whether it has a happy ending.
The world Big Oil needs
Let’s start with its first pillar: that the world economy is going to be using enormous amounts of oil for decades to come.
In recent months, we’ve seen an illustrative example of how fossil fuel proponents use this to spin forecasts about the energy sources needed to meet future demand, in this case from an important International Energy Agency (IEA) report last November that suggested global energy demand will rise 1 to 1.3 per cent annually for the next 20 years.
First came Alberta premier Jason Kenney who said the following in April when insisting it’s still far from time to consider transitioning Alberta away from the fossil fuel industry:
Even in the most bearish scenario for oil consumption produced by the International Energy Agency, they see at least 70 million barrels per day of oil consumption in 2040, two decades from now.… When the world needs that energy, we want to make sure that it's coming from a stable, environmentally responsible market-based democracy with the world's highest human rights, labour, and environmental standards. That would be Alberta.… In that world 20 years from now, when at least, at least 70 million barrels of oil [per day] is being produced and consumed, we will be a major part of that supply. We will not abandon global energy markets to some of the world’s worst regimes.
Then in May, in a piece called “A ‘Green New Deal’ makes no sense for Canada,” the Canadian Energy Centre, the troubled fossil fuel industry “war room” that Kenney’s government established to engage in the “moral cause” of spreading pro-oil counternarratives, noted the following:
The IEA forecasts that global oil demand will continue to be significant into the future. Even in the most aggressive decarbonization scenario it published in November 2019, by 2040 oil demand is expected to be 67 million barrels per day. But its Stated Policies Scenario, or the more likely case, sees oil demand increase to 106 million barrels per day over the same period.
You don’t have to look hard at the way the story is being used here to detect something alarming: an indifference about the kind of world that would need more Canadian energy.
The “bearish scenario” Kenney referred to is the IEA’s “Sustainable Development Scenario” in which the world achieves the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping warming below 2 C. But the Alberta premier has long opposed even weak versions of the ambitious climate policies that are needed immediately in order to meet that all-important goal. And so there’s little reason to think he would have reservations about the province being a “major part” of the oil supply in a world that failed to prevent warming of more than 2 C. (Notice, also, that Kenney emphasized “at least” several times, as though it wouldn’t really matter if even more oil was needed, the scenario being just “bearish” rather than, say, “essential to avoid widespread hardship and suffering.”)
This indifference is even more stark in the piece by the Canadian Energy Centre.
When it turns to that “more likely case” of oil demand at 106 million barrels per day to justify continued commitment to expanding Canada’s fossil fuel industry, it neglects to mention that this is a scenario in which global CO2 emissions do not plateau until the mid-2040s. “This trajectory,” writes the IEA, “is consistent with limiting the temperature increase to below 2.7°C above pre-industrial averages with a 50% probability (or below 3.2°C with 66% probability).”
What isn’t mentioned in the story is that the 3 C–warmer world that needs more Canadian oil (really, the world Big Oil needs) is a world no one should want.
The other part of the story insists that Alberta’s oil and gas industry, thanks to the province's environmental, labour, and human rights record, holds a special ethical status that justifies its continued development for decades to come. It, too, has some plot holes.
There are, for instance, serious questions about how high the environmental standards really are in a province where oil companies have left the clean-up of orphan wells and tailings ponds to — well, who knows?
Similarly, claims of high human rights standards don’t hold up well given the tar sands developments have been so destructive that the Beaver Lake Cree are taking on the government in court to stop their expansion.
But even absent these issues, environmental, human rights, and labour standards do not on their own suffice to morally justify any sharply limited fossil fuel production that can still occur.
For that, it has to be committed to serious climate action.
Oil is over (if you want it)
An additional, higher standard we might consider is that a country must be on track to bringing its emissions in line with the Paris climate targets in order to sell fossil fuels to international markets. (This would have the added advantage of turning its oil-producing regions in favour of strong national climate action.) Another standard could be a country’s participation in an international system that equitably permits fossil fuel production under a cap low enough to meet the Paris targets. In June, Oil Change International published a study highlighting the principles that could guide something like this.
That, however, would require a different story with a different slogan. We already have some to work with.
System change, not climate change. We can be whatever we have the courage to see. Oil is dead.