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Plan for a low-carbon Alberta

As Alberta’s economic engine falters, now is a good time to rethink the province putting all its eggs in bitumen’s basket.

When their crops failed, Alberta’s farmers had the pluck to persevere. There’s always next year. That resilience in the face of adversity served them well. But a next-year-country optimism is misplaced when applied to Alberta’s unconventional oil.

Sure the world oil price will eventually bounce back and might lead to another oil boom. But should or can Alberta go down that undulating road again?

Whether the price of oil is high or low, there will be an Alberta “after the sands.” And it will come long before all the carbon is extracted from recoverable oil in northern Alberta.

Climate scientists at London-based Climate Tracker calculate that humans can emit no more than about 565 gigatons of CO2 between 2011 and 2050 to prevent the world heating up more than two degrees Celsius. A two-degree rise will cause great devastation. Anything more spells disaster unparalleled in recorded human history. Last year was the hottest year on record.

Contrary to Mr. Harper’s claim that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from Alberta’s oilsands are “almost nothing globally,” they matter. With one-200th of the planet’s people, Canada produces one-fortieth of Earth’s GHGs, as measured by production. That’s five times the per-capita level of emissions as the world average.

Oil and natural gas production are Canada’s biggest sources of GHGs, edging out transportation. The oilsands are Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions and the main roadblock to Canada meeting its international climate change commitments.

The problem is that the world’s coal, oil and natural gas corporations already hold 2,795 gigatons of carbon, five times the 565-gigaton limit.

Big Oil must not be allowed to release all the carbon atoms it holds. Much of the oil must stay in the soil. Oil-producing regions like Alberta will have to find the next thing.

If Alberta doesn’t change course on its own terms, the rest of the world will force it to by blocking pipelines or refusing to buy its bitumen exports.

Four years ago, the Alberta Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy, headed by David Emerson, warned that Alberta could not continue skipping down the bitumen highway. “The creation of an affordable, environmentally friendly alternative to oil would be a great thing for the world. It could be economically devastating for Alberta if, when it happens, we are still heavily dependent on oil exports.”

The late Peter Lougheed thought it folly for Alberta to have such a narrowly based economy.

After flying over the oilsands in 2006, he remarked: “I was just up there on a trip, just helicoptering around, and it is just a moonscape. It is wrong in my judgment, a major wrong, and I keep trying to see who the beneficiaries are.”

Lougheed also noted that fresh water is more valuable than crude oil. “I can imagine an Alberta without oil, but not without water.”

An abrupt shift to a low-carbon society would create a wrenching and sudden depression in Alberta.

We must build a diversified economy while transitioning off the oilsands. New industries and jobs must be created around a green economy that builds on Alberta’s highly educated and skilled workforce.

Making a less energy intensive Alberta can create many jobs. Out of 56 economic sectors, oil and natural gas extraction are dead last in job creation — a measly 3.5 jobs for every $1 million invested.

Instead of wasting billions on carbon storage, Alberta should instead insulate homes and buildings. That would lower heating costs and cut emissions far more than carbon storage. Oilsands construction workers could be better employed retrofitting buildings, constructing new LRT and a high-speed train between Calgary and Edmonton.

We must plan now for a low-carbon Alberta. Sheik Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s famous minister of oil (1962-86) wisely warned in 2000 that “Thirty years from now, there will be a huge amount of oil — and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground. The stone age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”

Gordon Laxer is the founding director and former head of the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute and author of a forthcoming book on Canadian energy and ecological security.

Gordon Laxer

Gordon Laxer, PhD, is the founding Director and former head of Parkland Institute (1996-2011). He is a Political Economist and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, and is the author or editor of five books, including Open for Business: The Roots of Foreign Ownership in Canada, which in 1991 received the John Porter Award for best book written about Canada. Gordon was the Principal Investigator of the $1.9 million research project, Neoliberal Globalism and its Challengers: Reclaiming the Commons in the Semi-periphery (2000-2006). He is the author of After the Sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians, which was nominated for the 2016 John W. Dafoe prize in non-fiction books.

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