The oilsands have become, politically, the gift that keeps on taking. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s brand has been badly tarnished by his pro-pipeline stance even as evidence mounts that new pipeline capacity isn’t needed. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley continues to pretend pipelines will bring back the glory days for the province’s energy sector — even as crude prices languish in the mid $40s due to cheaper U.S. shale oil, and even as OPEC and Russia hold back their own production to shore up prices.
Headlines like this one don’t bode well for future investment: ‘Suncor wins favour by ignoring core business of oil sands.’ RBN Energy also reported recently that the differential for Western Canadian Select between Cushing and Edmonton isn’t enough even to pay for the pipeline tariff, indicating surplus capacity headed in that direction must be being sold at a discount. Yet we’re still seeing headlines talking about growing production being transported by rail in future, with no reference to what is actually going on today.
Want more proof? Look at this recent Wall Street Journal article: ‘A New Problem for Keystone XL: Oil Companies Don’t Want It’. The WSJ reports that TransCanada can’t generate enough interest from industry to take on the guarantees necessary to move the line ahead.
The party’s over. It was over some time ago and the only ones still reluctant to bin the leftovers and turn out the lights are politicians. Trudeau seems especially loathe to confront reality, but energy sector corporations are in the business of making money, not shaping perceptions; they know the world is changing and they have to change with it.
After being challenged by Greenpeace to amend a prospectus to reflect the costs of meeting Canada’s climate change commitments, here’s what Kinder Morgan came up with:
“… a number of initiatives and regulatory changes relating to reducing GHG emissions have been undertaken … including, for example, the decarbonization targets set forth in the Paris Agreement … emerging technologies and public opinion has resulted in an increased demand for energy provided from renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels … also an overall decrease in the global demand for hydrocarbons. Each of the foregoing could negatively impact the Business directly as well (as) … the ability of the Business’ customers and shippers to honour their contractual commitments.”
Investors need to understand these risks, so it’s important that they be told. Canadians need to understand how the energy market is changing as well. So why don’t we get the same degree of candour from our leaders that shareholders get from Kinder Morgan?
And why isn’t the NEB stating that their approval of these pipelines — which incorporated the physical and environmental risks involved — also should have addressed the business risk, the fact that these pipelines may not be required? Instead, the NEB references the forecasts that support pipelines and tells the Senate that the lines are badly needed, period. And Trudeau continues to support pipelines the industry itself admits may not be needed if Canada meets its commitments under the Paris climate change accord — an agreement Trudeau has been vocal in supporting around the world.
Make no mistake: The industry in in rapid retreat from future oilsands investment. There hasn’t been a major project sanctioned since 2014. Sure, there’s been bold talk of improving technology to drive new oilsands projects. But here’s where I go back to the words of Suncor CEO Steve Williams from just a few months ago: “Mining investments are coming to an end, not just for Suncor but for the industry, I believe, for a considerable period, probably in excess of 10 years … I want to be equally clear: we have no plans to be going ahead with major capital investment in either mining or in situ in the foreseeable future.”
Against this backdrop, the new NDP government in B.C. has a pact with the Green Party to “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast and the transportation of raw bitumen through our province.” Does Premier-designate John Horgan really mean this? In a recent piece in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason suggests that Horgan is going to see if the court challenges do the job for him — that he really doesn’t mean what’s written in the pact with the Greens.
If true, that’s a mistake on Horgan’s part. In a minority government situation, the BC NDP needs to be visible on the right side of environmental issues if it wants to differentiate itself from the BC Liberals. Christy Clark tried an abrupt reversal towards the end of the recent provincial election campaign, embracing a ban on coal exports as a way to fight climate change. This reversal continued with the recent throne speech in which she vowed to increase the carbon tax after refusing to do so previously. Clark can spot the obvious: British Columbians want real action on climate change, instead of more talk. The NDP needs to deliver.
For the Trudeau Liberals, the B.C. election offered a warning. They can’t carry on promoting fossil fuel development while paying lip service to climate change action. Voters see through the act now: They know that growing oilsands and meeting our Paris commitments are mutually contradictory goals. Trudeau has thrown his B.C. MPs under the bus with his quixotic support for boosting fossil fuel development through building pipelines. How can he turn things around as he moves into the second half of his mandate?
The party’s over … but Trudeau can’t seem to bring himself to leave.