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Four Pipeline Realities for Alberta’s Rumpelstiltskin

Jason Kenney rants and raves over Keystone XL’s cancellation. But let’s look at the facts.

Andrew Nikiforuk 24 Jan 2021 |

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney rants and raves like Rumpelstiltskin over the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project, you might want to consider some other realities that you won’t read on the website of the Canadian Energy Centre, the much-trashed propaganda agency funded by the Kenney government.

1. Investing in the pipeline expansion was an enormous gamble.

Ignoring all prudent forecasts about climate change and oil price volatility, Kenney invested $1.5 billion in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline last March.

In so doing he gambled that then-president Donald Trump, a man who poo-pooed climate change the same way he dismissed the coronavirus, would get re-elected. Kenney was so confident in his decision that you could imagine him dancing in the moonlight, singing: “Tonight tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the pipeline I make.”

Some of his cabinet ministers proudly wore MAGA hats. And Kenney called a Democrat governor “braindead” because of her concerns about leaky pipelines.

In other words, he showed no respect for reality, let alone his province’s main market. He violated the precautionary principle, insulted Americans and exercised the poorest of political judgments.

2. The cancellation won’t badly hurt the oilsands.

Next comes a comment from Rystad Energy, a prominent Norwegian oil analyst firm. (Alberta might want to invest in such a thing, or actually hire someone to read Rystad’s output.)

Unlike Rumpelstiltskin, Rystad did not rail about the highly predictable cancellation. Instead, using the power of thoughtful analysis (a scarce resource in Alberta), Rystad concluded that the oilsands would not be hugely affected in the short term because industry has pursued other options with fewer risks.

Other pipelines will give the industry additional capacity of nearly one million barrels until 2025, Rystand found. In other words, the killing of the pipeline would have a muted impact on Western Canadian oil production.

“The truth is, KXL never quite escaped the shadow of uncertainty in the eyes of many producers,” explained Thomas Liles, Rystad’s vice-president for North American shale. “Canadian oilsands producers have become accustomed to bad news over the past six years — be it global price routs, demand destruction or local infrastructure constraints — and have adjusted the scale and pace of upstream development accordingly.”

Rystad Energy also talks about the industry’s dirty laundry: carbon dioxide emissions.

It calculates that the carbon intensity of the U.S. shale industry’s CO2 emissions is about around 12 kilograms per barrel of oil equivalent.

In contrast, the oilsands is calculated “at a staggering 73 kilograms” per barrel of oil equivalent. Conventional onshore producers such as Saudi Arabia have a footprint of 19 kilograms per barrel of oil equivalent.

This math results in one obvious conclusion. “Investors will increasingly be looking at their target’s carbon footprint before making any business decisions, and the best-in-class companies will be prime investment targets.”

3. Oil demand is almost certainly going to change. And even if it doesn’t, we wouldn’t need Keystone XL.

Another piece of reality comes from the Canada Energy Regulator, which used to be known as the scandal-ridden National Energy Board. In November, the regulator published a report on Canada’s energy outlook.

The publication ran two scenarios on oil demand. One assumed the world would do nothing about climate change. But the “evolving scenario” imagined “increasing action on climate change,” such as those policies just enacted by the Joe Biden administration.

Unfortunately for Alberta, Kenney can’t imagine such realities or accept such a scenario.

In any case, here’s what the regulator’s super-cautious analysis concluded about oil demand in a world that modestly responds to climate change and in which fossil fuel consumption still makes up 60 per cent of Canada’s fuel mix in 2050.

The analysis forecast that Canada’s consumption of fossil fuels will not grow beyond its 2019 peak. It would fall 12 per cent by 2030 and 35 per cent lower by 2050. Meanwhile, under this “evolving scenario” Canada’s crude oil production will increase from 4.9 million barrels a day in 2019 to 5.8 million barrels per day by 2039.

And what about the export pipelines? The regulator assumed three pipelines would be built: the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Keystone XL and Enbridge’s Line 3. And it found that “crude oil available for export is significantly lower than total pipeline capacity.”

The regulator hastily added that “this should not be interpreted as the Energy Futures Report concluding that any pipeline should or should not be built.” (Even under its business-as-usual scenario, which forecast Canadian oil production at seven million barrels a day, there remains excess pipeline capacity.)

Energy analyst David Hughes checked the math on both production and Canada’s emission targets. He also calculated that even in CER’s “evolving scenario” forecast in a world serious about reducing carbon emissions, neither Trans Mountain nor Keystone XL would be needed.

“If you include what [the regulator] didn’t in their analysis — the announced expansions of the Enbridge mainline, additional capacity approved on the existing Keystone pipeline, and the announced reversal of the Southern Lights pipeline, there is more than enough pipeline-only capacity to meet the CER forecast without rail, Trans Mountain or Keystone,” he said.

Hughes makes another point: The regulator’s “evolving scenario” is highly optimistic about the industry’s ability to lower its carbon footprint.

“It is likely that Canada’s oil production will have to be much less than the [evolving case scenario], as emissions just from oil and gas production would exceed an 80-per-cent emissions reduction target by 2050 by 38 per cent, even if there is a 30-per-cent decrease in emissions per barrel from the oilsands, as assumed by [the regulator], and all other sectors of the economy were reduced to zero.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian government, which has never met a carbon reduction target, has pledged to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 in Bill C-12. (Net zero means clouds of carbon dioxide will hopefully be neutralized by a wonderful invention called “negative emission technologies.”)

4. Alberta failed to make an alternate plan.

Last but not least, good governments plan for changes in economic and political fortune.

Because bitumen has always been a high-cost and poor-quality substitute for conventional oil, it has experienced greater oil price volatility. Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed anticipated this risk by insisting on high royalties and building a Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Successive governments over nearly half a century abandoned those conservative principles. They lowered royalties and saved none of the revenue. Both Conservative and NDP governments ignored growing price volatility and other risks created by overproduction.

To this day, the government of Alberta still has no plan to deal with price volatility other than bashing its citizens with cycles of bust and boom followed by political denial and blame.

And so Rumpelstiltskin now raves and rants, a Grimm strategy for a petro state.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics

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