Canada's oil sands usually are talked about -- too often yelled about -- as representing one of two potentials.
Potential to meet growing global demand for energy, enriching corporations and government coffers.
Potential to tip the climate balance disastrously, ushering in a final death spiral of global "tough oil" extraction.
The first camp exhorts "full steam ahead!", dismissive of environmental concerns.
The second camp counters "shut them down!", identifying the oil sands as enemy of our future.
Oil sands full bore? Oil sands full stop? Neither is realistic.
Those who argue "oil sands full bore" ignore that resource-rich industrialized countries bear a responsibility to invest in ways to stem the climate change threat. If Canadians are seen to be instead putting our heads in the oil sands, we risk becoming a pariah among nations. Because while yes, the oil sands release a small percentage of human-caused greenhouse gases globally, they are the world's largest experiment in high-emissions "tough oil" extraction, and as such a lightning rod for anxieties about whether Canada is accelerating the problem or part of the solution. Besides, policies that begin and end with "oil sands full bore" only place Canada's economy at a straggling disadvantage as other nations achieve efficiencies through renewable energy and conservation.
Those who argue "oil sands full stop" ignore the forward momentum generated by vast economic and political capital invested in the project, capital marshaled in response to market demands that aren't about to disappear tomorrow. In fact, if peak oil does drive up the price of fossil fuels to $200 a barrel or higher as some predict, that will have two likely effects -- driving down overall consumption of fossil fuels, but improving the business case for relatively more expensive oil sands extraction. And even in a world fast shifting to renewables, there will be a large role to play for oil-based energy and manufacturing.
The conversation we must have
So, oil sands full bore? Oil sands full stop? These overly simplistic and polarized points of reference hobble our ability to have the real conversation we need.
That conversation is about transition. How do we get from where we are today to a greener, sustainable Canadian society over the next decades? That conversation necessarily includes both those who are invested in seeing the oil sands mined, and those who recognize that fossil fuel dependency endangers our children's future.
To discuss that transition is to raise many critical questions. At what rate and intensity should we mine the oil sands? Where should we be investing the wealth they create? What are the prospects for mining the oil sands with significantly less impact on the regional and global environment? What could be Canada's long term sustainable energy plan, given the advantage oil sands resources afford us? And at least a dozen more key queries.
In reading this far, you have listened in on the conversation often held these days in the offices of The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society.
Growing out of many previous investigations by our energy-focused journalists has come the conviction that this depolarizing, third narrative of transition to a greener energy future is where we should be investing our current reporting efforts. We have set as our task interviewing key players in industry and government, policy framers, philosophers, engineers, scientists and CEOs. Our mission is to seek out facts we trust will bring more clarity to this process of collectively imagining our way forward.
Three major energy-related reporting projects
Today begins the first of three major projects growing out of our desire to be of service to the how-to-transition conversation. Geoff Dembicki's "Greening the Oil Sands" is really two projects in one, the first looking at whether the oil sands can be mined in a significantly less carbon-intensive way, and if the carbon it does produce can be priced and regulated in such a way as to better enable the transition to a greener energy future. The second part of Dembicki's series, running later in the year, looks at efforts to make oil sands mining less energy consumptive and damaging to the region's ecosystem.
As I write this, Mitchell Anderson has just completed an intensive week and half in oil-wealthy Norway, interviewing officials high in the government, academics and other experts about how that nation has managed its fossil fuel windfall and what lessons might apply to Canada. That series will be published in the coming months.
Finally, Andrew Nikiforuk is well along in reporting a third major series on the challenges and opportunities Canada faces in evolving from today's fossil-fuel based society to one able to stave off climate disaster or economic upheaval because of spiking energy prices. That series is slated to be published in the fall.
We group all of this work under the general heading of "Canada's Transition to a Sustainable Energy Economy" -- a year long journalistic commitment by The Tyee and Tyee Solutions Society. This substantial body of work intended to enhance public education is made possible by funding from the Tides Canada Initiatives Society, for which we are appreciative. By signed agreement with Tides Canada Initiatives Society, our reporters retain complete editorial independence as they carry out their investigations and we are proudly eager to share with you their findings in the days, weeks and months ahead.