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False advertising by the Alberta government and oil lobby

As an Alberta-born and raised earth scientist who has made a career studying fossil fuels and energy issues, I am dismayed at the bombardment of "fake news" in print, online and TV ads from the Alberta government on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. These ads are repeated hourly on several TV stations.

One ad tells us that:

Canada’s economy loses out on an estimated $80 million dollars in economic benefits every day that the expansion is delayed. Trans Mountain changes that, providing an $80 million-a-day economic boost to our country, supporting thousands of jobs from coast to coast to coast.

Every day? In fact, the earliest Trans Mountain could be completed is 2022. Two other pipelines under development — Enbridge’s Line 3, due in late 2019, and Keystone XL, due in 2021— will provide twice the export capacity of Trans Mountain to higher-priced US markets. Although the Trans Mountain delay is costing Canada nothing, given that pipeline-bottlenecks will be eliminated without it, a counter on the Alberta government’s website claims that, as of January 29, the court-ordered shutdown has cost Canada $12.2 billion.

The differential between Alberta heavy oil (Western Canada Select or WCS) and the North American price (West Texas Intermediate or WTI) is normally about $15 per barrel. This is due to the fact that WCS is priced at Hardisty, Alberta, and incurs a transportation cost of $7 via pipeline to Cushing, Oklahoma, where WTI is priced. And because WCS is a lower grade of oil than WTI, it incurs a further quality discount of about $8 per barrel as it is costlier to refine. Lately, WCS has been trading at a differential of less than $11 due to the completion of maintenance at US refineries which had been temporarily offline, shortfalls from suppliers in Mexico and Venezuela, and the curtailment of production in Alberta. This amounts to a premium of $4 per barrel or $13.7 million per day on exports compared to normal, not a loss of $80 million per day as stated in the Alberta ad.

As for the alleged thousands of jobs, Kinder-Morgan itself (which sold the pipeline to the Canadian government) stated in its application to the National Energy Board for the Trans Mountain expansion that only 90 permanent jobs would be created.

Another ad tells us that:

By expanding the capacity of Trans Mountain, we gain access to more markets for our oil, and command a higher price for our resource. The Trans Mountain expansion opens new overseas markets, giving us access to more customers and better prices, generating billions for Canadian priorities.

In fact, the US has 55% of the world’s heavy oil refining capacity and heavy oil prices on the US Gulf Coast are $3 higher than in Asia which, coupled with higher transport costs to Asia, means that oil transported to the US via Line 3 and Keystone XL will capture a premium of $5 per barrel compared to Asia exports via Trans Mountain. The ‘billions for Canadian priorities’ are a figment of the government’s imagination.

A third ad tells us that:

The Trans Mountain Pipeline will generate billions in revenue to fund innovation and clean technology, speeding our country’s transition to a greener energy future. Expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline provides billions for innovation and clean technology.

Given the fact that Trans Mountain will lose $5 per barrel selling oil to Asia compared to oil shipped via the US-bound pipelines under development, not to mention that Trans Mountain will provide few permanent jobs while putting marine habitats at risk in Canada’s most populated port city, this rhetoric comes right out of George Orwell’s playbook.

Alberta groups such as Canada Action, run by a Calgary realtor, have doubled down on the Alberta government’s rhetoric, claiming Canada is losing $100 million per day and will lose $92 billion from 2008-2020 without new pipelines. Canada Action hosted a free conference at the Telus Convention Centre in December featuring conspiracy theories claiming that Canada’s pipeline and oil production problems are due to US-funded environmental groups (if so, why has bitumen production increased 137%, or 1.8 million barrels per day, from 2007 to 2018?). When Canada Action was asked for funding sources and references for its loss claims it provided no response.

The Alberta government’s ad campaign has cost at least $23 million for what amounts to fake news to convince the public that it is "doing something" for the oil and gas industry. Given the fact that Canada has two new pipelines coming onstream which will eliminate bottlenecks before Trans Mountain could be built and that there is no price premium in Asia, these ads amount to pure propaganda.

It is time for an adult conversation on energy given Canada’s emissions reduction commitments and the need for long-term energy security. Conducting a misleading campaign with taxpayers’ money is the antithesis of what is required.

This blog is part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada. The CMP is jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

A shortened version of this blog appeared as an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal on February 20, 2019.

Photo credit: Government of Alberta under a Creative Commons licence.

David Hughes

David Hughes is an earth scientist who has studied the energy resources of Canada and the US for more than four decades, including 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada as a scientist and research manager, where he headed unconventional gas and coal research. His research focus has been on unconventional fuels, primarily shale gas and tight oil, but also coal, coalbed methane and other unconventional sources, including oil sands, coal gasification and gas hydrates. Hughes is currently President of Global Sustainability Research Inc, a consultancy dedicated to research on energy and sustainability issues.

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