Just say no to more Canadian oil/gas exports, pipelines

Canada’s oil/gas sector (and its boosters) should focus instead on adapting to global energy transition

Build more pipelines! Export more oil and gas! Canadian hydrocarbon boosters’ cries to exploit the European energy crisis are deafening. Should Canada give in? No, and the reasons why are rooted in the nature of energy transitions, both past and present.

Energi Media recently interviewed oil and gas experts Kevin Birn, an economist with IHS Markit, and Richard Masson, an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, about Canada’s ability to help Europe. Unfortunately, there is little Canada can do in the short-term. Pipelines to get oil to market take the better part of a decade to build, while LNG plants and the gas pipelines to supply feedstock are roughly the same.

Could Canada fast track projects? Sure, if wants to run roughshod over its new environmental assessment legislation and accelerated climate targets. Don’t expect the Liberals under Justin Trudeau to be keen about either of those scenarios.

Nor should they be. The shrill demands emanating from Alberta should be viewed within the context of the global energy transition, which the Prime Minister says Canada must adapt to post haste.

Because transitions are fundamentally about the adoption of new technologies, they generally follow the S-curve trajectory that most successful technologies follow: 20 to 30 years of slow progress after introduction to the market, a disruptive decade as they become competitive and begin to push competitors out of the market, and then another two or three decades as they become dominant.

As I argued in a previous column, the 2020s are the decade of disruption for this transition. Everywhere one looks these days, industries are being disrupted by new energy technologies. Global transportation manufacturers, for example poured $270 billion into switching to electric vehicles last year, according to BloombergNEF. Meanwhile, investors are shunning oil and gas companies, in part because of the uncertainty created by the energy transition.

Transportation is the primary market for liquid fuels made from crude oil. After 125 years, petroleum finally has a serious competitor in electricity and, to a lesser extent, in hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels. Automakers are sending a very loud message to oil companies that they prefer the competitors.

Source: BloombergNEF, IEA, OPEC.

Does this seem like a good time to double down on what is surely a sunset industry? To build 50-year infrastructure with a significant risk of becoming stranded assets? To divert time, energy, and resources away from building the emerging clean energy economy that will dominate the 21st century?

Now consider a point I argued in yesterday’s column, that Alberta oil and gas is unethical and has not earned the right to higher production and exports. The sky high carbon-intensity of oil sands bitumen, the unfunded liabilities of 37 tailings ponds, high methane emissions, and the hydrocarbon industry’s insistence that taxpayers fund (up to $50 billion for the oil sands alone) decarbonization costs all argue for less government support, not more.

Oil sands giant Suncor has the right approach. Over the next five years, Canada’s largest integrated oil and gas company will cap production at 800,000 barrels per day and focus on improving efficiency and lowering costs. Suncor calls this “value over volume.” Will it work? The company is telling investors that production costs will fall dramatically and returns to shareholders will grow, which sounds like a winning strategy.

And here’s the cherry on the sundae: Suncor will be the only Canadian producer to cut greenhouse gas emissions (35% by 2030) just as the federal government is bringing in a sector-wide emissions cap.

To sum up: the energy transition is restructuring global energy markets to Alberta’s disadvantage, Alberta’s oil and gas are unethical and haven’t earned the right to grow exports, and at least one major player is finding success with a different approach.

Remind me again why oil boosters are hell bent for expansion?

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