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Alberta, Our Choices Matter

Photo by Andre Furtado, Pexels.com

Few people wake up each day looking forward to a life of insignificance. On the contrary: we human beings are schemers and dreamers, and we go through life thinking constantly about our choices.

Some things we choose simply because we like them, like fresh peaches or chocolate ice cream. Others we choose as a way of adapting to choices made by others. We may choose to be home renovators or accountants because those services are currently in demand. Hardly anyone chooses to become a blacksmith now because the career outlook is poor.

Interestingly enough, there is also a third category: automatic choices, which occur as a result of actions we take without recognizing that these actions constitute choices. These unacknowledged choices often matter most of all.

Fossil fuel production is one such choice. We didn’t all choose to live atop great reserves of oil and gas, but we do choose to extract those fuels and export them. Production is authorized in our name by the Alberta Energy Regulator, a public entity created by our chosen representatives. Exporting those fuels is authorized in our name by the Canada Energy Regulator, another public entity created by our representatives.

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Fossil Fuel Production Has Consequences

What are the consequences of our choice to produce fossil fuels? Well, for one thing, it creates a lot of carbon dioxide. Oil and gas production accounted for 20.7 per cent of the 571 megatonnes of CO2 our nation emitted in 2019. That means our oil and gas production resulted in over 118 megatonnes of planet-busting CO2 in 2019 alone. Our nation’s total — 571 megatonnes — puts us in ninth place overall in the global emissions derby that year. Ninth place out of 193 countries.

And that’s just our upstream emissions, or part of them. We typically export around 80 per cent of our crude oil and 50 per cent of our gas. For both fuels, around 80 per cent of the emissions occur as the result of downstream combustion. Those emissions are counted in the countries that receive our exports, chiefly the United States. But CO2 emitted anywhere causes global warming everywhere, including here. So you might say that we’re cooking ourselves. That’s an interesting choice.

Declining Oil and Gas Demand

Let’s return to our second category, the choices we make while responding to demand. We’re often told that we produce fossil fuels because they’re in demand, which makes this choice profitable. That has been true in the past, but will it always be true? Some choices recently made by others provide some interesting clues in this regard.

China, for one, has other ideas. It is, by far, the world’s leader in building and installing wind and solar power. It’s also a world leader in battery production.

Then there’s the United States, our largest trading partner and the largest consumer of our oil and gas. Last year the U.S. passed the Inflation Reduction Act — the most significant climate policy the U.S. has ever passed.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the IRA will unlock $783 billion in spending on clean energy and climate change. Much of this will go to support domestic production (PDF icon) of heat pumps, solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and critical minerals — items that will be in great demand in the coming years.

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In the transport sector, the IRA erodes long-term oil demand in the U.S. by locking in electric vehicle tax credits until 2032, as well as opening up new tax credits for used and commercial EVs. It puts up $3 billion for electrifying the vast fleet of the U.S. Postal Service. It builds on separate commitments by the largest automakers in the world to spend $1.2 trillion by 2030 on the switch from internal combustion to electric vehicles. And it extends tax credits for building charging networks, which enticed seven large automakers including BMW, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai, to join hands to build 30,000 EV charging stations across the U.S. Those charging stations are going to charge a lot of electric vehicles. But the electricity won’t come from Alberta natural gas. It’ll come from renewable energy.

Still think the oil and gas party will go on forever? Consider the wave created by California’s auto standards, which are imitated by 16 other U.S. states. S&P Global Mobility believes EV’s will account 40–50 per cent of passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2030. We’ll sell a lot less oil as a result.

“Because here’s the thing about Alberta’s energy transition: the biggest challenge isn’t domestic climate policy. It’s climate policy everywhere else. Ultimately, a low-carbon world is coming, no matter who’s in power in Edmonton or in Ottawa.”

Dale Beugin, Gordon R. Lambert, Chris Ragan, Canadian Climate Institute

Our Choices Have Consequences

But let’s return once again to our unrecognized choice to produce fossil fuels. We are seeing the consequences of this choice in floods, deadly heat waves, punishing droughts, wildfires, rising sea levels and ocean acidification. With Alberta’s horrific wildfires, we can no longer pretend that these things won’t happen to us. And as my friend Andy points out, our own fuels play a large part in all this mayhem. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, Alberta’s fossil fuels will use up 6 to 14 per cent of the world’s entire carbon budget for 1.5℃.

I like quoting people, and here I’m going to quote Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, who makes an interesting point about another choice: the choice to face reality. You may be familiar with this name. Dr. Al Jaber runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and by a strange and controversial twist of fate, he is the designated president of this year’s COP28 climate meeting, which will take place this fall in the United Arab Emirates.

But never mind the politics. Pay attention to what Dr. Al Jaber said at a July G20 Ministers meeting in Chennai, India: “The science and our senses are telling us that the world is more vulnerable, less resilient and lacks the critical capacity to deal with mounting climate impacts. Right now, many of the indicators are going in the wrong direction. Temperature records continue to be broken, with this month officially recorded as the hottest in history. We are losing biodiversity. Agricultural land is being degraded and food insecurity is increasing.”

We know that fossil fuels are the primary cause of this destruction, and that we must phase them out. That shift has already begun, and the people who participate in it will benefit from lower emissions, cleaner air and economic development. Unless we intend to burn our own house down, or to become a nation of blacksmiths, we’d better join them.

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