It’s time for a reality check for Canada’s “bitumen-besotted leaders,” veteran journalist and energy specialist Andrew Nikiforuk writes in an opinion piece for The Tyee.
Citing a long list of federal, provincial, and municipal politicians who “seem united, at the moment, in their adolescent professions of love for new pipelines,” Nikiforuk warns that “love is blind, and in this case, blind to four tough truths about Canada’s dead-end relationship with bitumen.” Those “obvious (and very conservative) reasons” explain mounting opposition to the National Energy Board and its penchant for approving pipelines.
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First, Nikiforuk points out there’s no known way to clean up a bitumen spill. “Because the low-grade heavy oil must be diluted with a gasoline-like product to move through a pipeline, it presents an even graver logistical challenge than a conventional spill,” he writes. “Yet our bitumen-besotted politicians would have British Columbia gamble with its fisheries, tourism, and coast on the bold lie that diluted bitumen, a dirtier product than crude, can be cleaned up in a timely and tidy fashion.”
Second, he notes that the economic case for new pipelines has collapsed. “According to the love-struck politicians, bitumen exports to China will make Canadians rich, and the sulphur-rich crude will miraculously command a higher dollar with marine access,” he states.
“But bitumen will always require higher transportation costs and more upgrading and processing due to its appalling quality.” That means tar sands/oil sands crude will always sell for less than higher-quality product, and prices have been further depressed by over-production in a handful of countries—including Canada—and a stagnant global economy brought on in part by high oil prices in the past.
Nikiforuk’s third argument is that bitumen is cannibalizing the economy. “Cheap oil once offered glorious returns or surpluses that the economy translated into piles of dollars, which, in turn, fueled economic growth,” he acknowledges. But those days are done, given the declining energy return on a new barrel of oil.
“Nearly 100 years ago, it cost but one barrel of conventional crude to find and pump another 100 barrels,” he writes. “Those energy returns now average about one to 20. In the U.S., they’ve fallen to one to 10, and in the oil sands they have collapsed to one to three, or in some cases close to zero.” Yet “no one in Alberta or Ottawa talks about declining energy returns or its political and economic implications. The consequences generally include words like collapse, ruin, and volatility.”
And finally, he warns that “climate disruption and carbon anarchy aren’t a distant threat…they’re here now.” From thinning Arctic ice to acidifying oceans, record hot spells and flooded cities to drought-stricken crops and the Fort McMurray wildfire, Nikiforuk notes that the impacts of climate change are already upon us.
“How many times must ordinary people be slapped in the face before our politicians grasp the gravity of the insult?” he asks. “Climate disruption, driven by oil consumption and forest destruction, has become a global insurgency that can only be combatted by rapidly changing patterns of energy consumption. That means using less energy and living locally. Pipelines and their political champions now look and behave like horsemen of the apocalypse.”