No on/off switch: Transitioning to a lower carbon economy takes time — and carbon

With energy poised to dominate the public discourse in Canada in 2019, Provident View is hosting a guest contributor based in Calgary, Ground Zero of the oil price collapse, to bring you a fresh and relevant viewpoint. Jennifer Allford is a freelance journalist in Calgary who writes extensively about sustainability, the energy industry and engineering in Alberta. Here’s her View from Calgary:

Alberta’s oil patch is making news again, with the Bank of Canada acknowledging this week that the lower oil prices due to strained pipeline capacity are affecting the country’s macroeconomic outlook. That’s not all. Cameras are also flocking to northern British Columbia to cover a standoff at an Indigenous camp over an LNG pipeline, and the prime minister was greeted in Kamloops by protesters on both sides of the pipeline debate.  

It’s an incredibly complex situation and much is at stake. On the one hand, the world needs to reduce its carbon emissions, urgently. On the other hand, we have built modern society and its countless systems to rely on fossil fuels. We’ve started to reduce that reliance and turn to renewable forms of energy to help power our quality of life. But there is no giant switch. We can’t just turn off fossil fuels and turn on renewables.

While we have made great strides in becoming more energy-efficient with everything from LEED certified buildings to electric vehicles, we’re decades away from figuring out the complex engineering needed to transition completely to renewables. Solar panels may heat your home, but they won’t fly a plane anytime soon. Wind turbines can help power your Prius, but they can’t bring oranges from South Africa or iPhones from China. The reality is we need oil and gas. Canadians from coast to coast to coast consume about 1.5 million barrels of oil every single day.  

As we start to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, we also seem to be transitioning into a tribalism that’s only making the process more difficult. On the one hand, you have anti-pipeline activists demanding Canadians #keepitintheground to reduce emissions. On the other, people in Canada’s oil and gas industry are beginning to speak out, tired of being vilified for a global carbon economy 200 years in the making.

In between, you have most Canadians, citizens who can see both sides and accept the need for policies and programs that will seed new technologies and help wean us off fossil fuels. These same Canadians also like a robust economy, one that is fuelled in part by the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in oil and gas, the country’s largest export. Politicians, meanwhile, struggle to address how to reduce emissions without destroying the economy—and their chances of getting re-elected.

As pipeline projects wend their way through years of delays and court battles and billions of dollars of capital take off for more certain jurisdictions, more rail cars loaded with bitumen wend their way along B.C.’s beautiful mountain passes.

The industry would prefer to use pipelines because they’re far safer and much cheaper. Some activists would prefer we stop using fossil fuels altogether. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. And as we continue to make our way to a lower carbon economy, bitumen will continue to make its way to market. The question is how.