Atlantic Canada can take control over own destiny

Written by Gordon Laxer on October 23, 2016

after-the-sandsAtlantic Canada is at a crossroads. Should it pin its hopes on the era of oil dominance and carbon-dense resource exports continuing? Or should it play on its strengths to become a leader in the transition to a low carbon future?

Rather than allow the region to be directed and neglected by powerful outside forces that care little about the fate of its people, could Atlantic Canadians fashion their own future more?

The proposed Energy East oil pipeline and the giant Muskrat Falls hydro dam in Labrador are the regions’ biggest megaprojects. They are betting that the carbon era will persist for decades.

What if they’re wrong and the world and Ottawa get serious about climate change and refuse to buy what these projects are selling?

They could become white elephants. If history is a guide, governments and taxpayers will be stuck with the tab.

The production of oil and natural gas, mainly in Alberta, is Canada’s largest source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). They exceed the GHGs emitted from all the vehicles driven in Canada.

Building the Energy East line will spur expansion of Alberta’s Sands, the fastest growing source of emissions in Canada. If completed, Energy East will be the second most capacious oil pipeline in North America. It would have to go full bore with mainly Alberta bitumen for 30 years to pay off building costs.

Sooner or later Ottawa will realize Canada can’t cut emission by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, as it and the other G8 countries pledged to do, if it doesn’t cap and then phase out bitumen production from Alberta’s Sands.

What about new, large hydro dams? Aren’t they good environmental alternatives? A study published in Bioscience this month by Bridget Deemer says no. New hydro dams that flood large areas and have fluctuating water levels produce much more greenhouse gases than previously thought.

Energy East and Muskrat Falls are hugely expensive. Energy East will cost $15.7 billion while Muskrat Falls’ cost estimates spirals out of control. The latest prediction is $11.4 billion.

If GHG-rich megaprojects are a dead end, is there an alternative?

There’s an obvious one no one is discussing. Instead of running an oil pipeline 4,600 km from Alberta, why not supply all Atlantic Canadians with Newfoundland’s non-fracked, conventional oil?

Newfoundland’s offshore oil fields produce 200,000 barrels of oil a day, enough to meet all the oil used in the Atlantic provinces.

Atlantic Canadians are particularly exposed to an oil supply crisis, relying on imports for more than 80 per cent of their oil from dodgy sources like Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

Wouldn’t TransCanada’s Energy-East pipeline finally give Atlantic Canadians the energy security they need? No. Mark Sherman, plant manager at the Saint John Irving oil refinery said the line would send “way more than we would ever use at this refinery, so the bulk of it would all be exported.”

Wouldn’t east coasters be most energy secure if they relied totally on their own oil?

Most Atlantic Canadians live on or near a coast. Why pipe oil from afar when tankers from Newfoundland can ship all they need? Tankers can be phased out as Atlantic Canadians’ oil use falls in the de-carbonizing transition the world is embarking on, whereas an oil pipeline locks Canada into pumping Alberta bitumen for decades.

Long-term, energy security is best gained by phasing out carbon fuel use and relying on electricity produced by renewables.

Stop building new hydro dams. Use existing ones and add in wind, solar and tidal power to boost electricity. Their intermittency can be counteracted by letting dams raise water levels when winds blow, the sun shines and tides are high. Open dams up when renewable energy flags. It’s called complementarity.

As we move to mid century, electricity will become the main way to deliver power for electric vehicles, inter-city rail, and heating buildings.

Atlantic Canadians should draw the four provinces together in common purpose to take more control over their destiny. The Newfoundland – Nova Scotia power cable is a good start.

Atlantic Canada is in a more fortuitous position than most parts of the world to make a successful transition to the next energy paradigm – a low carbon future that embraces and takes care of everyone. To do so it has stop pinning its hopes on outside forces to bring it economic well.

Gordon Laxer is author of the award-winning book, After the Sands. Energy & Ecological Security for Canadians. He will speak in Fredericton on Oct. 25 at 7 pm at Wilmot United Church Sanctuary, 473 King St at Carleton. 

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