Oil sands phase-out may be Canada’s greatest contribution to the world

September/October 2014

The occasion of writing this column prompted reflection on my engineering career, in particular three critical junctures. The first was in 1970, when my teacher pointed to Northern Alberta on a map at the front of our classroom, declaring that the oil embedded in the soil there would be Canada’s most important contribution to the world. Pretty heady stuff for an 11-year-old. The second was a decade later, when I was launching my career as a chemical engineer. My job working on the design of a an oil sands upgrader offered total coherence of purpose: intellectual challenge, economic opportunity and national pride.

It is not so easy to reconcile those goals today. Engineers’ expertise in extracting and refining bitumen must confront scientists’ conclusion that fossil fuels must remain in, or return to, the ground if we are to address global warming, a tension all-too apparent in our national policies. Canada has committed to reduce our emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, yet continues to champion expansion of oil sands production. Emissions growth from the oil sands is the main reason that Canada is projected to fall 50 percent short of the reductions needed to meet our 2020 target.

It is similarly difficult to reconcile economic interests. There is no question that the oil industry has provided lucrative jobs for engineers and contributed to national prosperity more broadly. Yet those benefits will largely disappear if the international community follows the prescriptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for deep emissions reductions. As demand for oil falls in response to regulation or carbon pricing, unconventional oil will be increasingly uncompetitive. Alternatively, if we do not reduce emissions, the economic benefits from fossil fuel extraction will be increasingly outweighed by the societal costs of global warming.

With respect to nationalism, while Canada trumpets its “ethical oil,” our repeated failure to meet a series of emissions reduction commitments since 1990 has significantly damaged our global reputation. Our global peacekeeping efforts provide little consolation to those in the developing world who, despite minimal personal emissions, suffer the greatest harm from global warming.

What’s an engineer to do? There is a natural tendency to screen out information that challenges one’s own goals or beliefs. In fact, a survey of engineers and geoscientists in Alberta found that just 36 percent accept that humans are the main cause of global warming. Although respondents were confident in their qualifications to evaluate climate science, it is striking how widely their views diverge from those of scientists who study climate for a living. A review of two decades of peerreviewed literature on climate change found that 97 percent of articles that took a position on causation attributed it to human activity.

Even if one accepts that our actions are contributing to climate change, it is often argued that the actions of an individual, a sector, or even a country won’t matter anyway. This assumes inaction by the rest of the world, most of which is doing more than Canada. How will our children and grandchildren reflect on that argument in the future, when they are paying the price for our inaction today?

An alternative to denial or fatalism is to redirect one’s expertise toward a new path: reducing one’s own carbon footprint, redirecting investments and even changing one’s career. Many of us are doing that in many ways, including using our specialized skills to design less carbonintensive processes and energy systems.

The third juncture in this engineer’s career involved a shift from process to policy research that seeks to identify political strategies for carbon pricing. If such strategies are successful, they will halt expansion and gradually phase out production from Canada’s oil sands. And that may well be Canada’s greatest contribution to the world.