Changing the Narrative on Alberta's Oil Sands

Imagine that a Canadian government researcher discovered a safe and inexpensive cancer vaccine. Naturally, the government of Canada would try to get it approved for use in the United States. The health and financial benefits to Americans and Canadians would be immense, which they would tout in their promotion of the discovery.

Inevitably, some would oppose the anti-cancer drug on the nonsensical grounds that all vaccines are dangerous. They would organize protests and letter-writing campaigns in an attempt to derail acceptance of the drug. They would recruit media to trumpet the dangers of the vaccine, ignoring its benefits.

If the anti-vaccine groups garnered significant support, the government of Canada would then have to decide: would they adjust their marketing efforts to properly refute the claims of loud but misinformed activists, or would they ignore the main issue driving the anti-vaccine campaign in the hopes of getting the drug approved anyways?

No responsible government would choose the second option.

They would direct their scientists to solidly refute the alarmists, arranging TV and radio interviews, writing articles, and convening open hearings with experts so that the public and media would hear how weak the evidence was on the anti-vaccine side.

The last thing the government would do is encourage the idea that vaccinations were dangerous.

Yet the government of Canada is following exactly the opposite of this commonsense approach when it comes to their promotion of the crucially important Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to refineries in the United States. Rather than adjust their strategy to properly address the main reason for opposition to the pipeline -- the feared impact of oil sands expansion on climate change -- the government mostly ignores the issue, choosing instead to promote the project in exactly the same way they did before President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline in 2012.

There are a number of factors that suggest another failure is likely. Although the U.S. State Department draft report on Keystone XL released last week came to generally supportive conclusions -- as did their report in 2011 --  Secretary of State John  Kerry is a well-known climate activist, and it is he who must approve the project before the file goes to Obama. In contrast to 2011 when then-Secretary Hilary Clinton came out in support of the pipeline even before her department had approved the project, Kerry has remained non-committal.

That Kerry used his first major address as secretary to make an urgent call for strong action on climate change should seriously concern XL boosters.

Making matters worse for those seeking pipeline approval is the fact that Obama no longer has to worry about getting re-elected. So, the question becomes: which does the president think is more important, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or providing for America’s energy security?

Judging from his State of the Union and inaugural addresses, his priority appears to be climate change. This observation is reinforced by Obama’s long-standing war on coal-fired electricity generation. If his overriding concern were energy security, he would not be trying to kill coal, America’s leading source of electric power. The U.S. has enough coal still in the ground to power the country for centuries, and new technologies make it cleaner than ever before. Coupled with its long-term price stability, something not seen with natural gas or oil, coal is an ideal baseload power source for America.

But coal produces more carbon dioxide (CO2), the GHG of most concern in the climate debate, than do its competitors. Despite optimistic assertions to the contrary by politicians, the technology to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground is still in its infancy, with nationwide application not possible before the 2020s. So, the U.S. administration is working hard to end coal’s use in the U.S., no matter the consequence for energy security.

Anti-Keystone activists are similarly trying to kill the oil sands because the project produces more CO2 than does conventional crude oil production. So, naturally, they are working to prevent all methods of delivery of crude out of the oil sands. Pipeline supporters seem to believe that by merely showing that the project is economically beneficial, enhances energy security, is coming from a country that respects human rights and the environment, and is relatively safe, that this will win the day.

They are being naïve.

The government of Canada must adjust its marketing of the oil sands, Keystone XL included, to properly address climate change -- the real reason Obama will probably again reject the project. It is not enough to remind the public that the oil sands constitute only 0.1% of world GHG emissions, as Canada’s natural resources minister Joe Oliver said in Chicago last week. If humanity’s emissions are causing dangerous climate change, then we in the developed world should set an example by cutting back on, not growing, emissions.

Like the mistaken belief that vaccines are unacceptably dangerous, the government must make it clear to the public that the fundamental premise of the climate movement is also wrong. The science is too immature to know the future of climate. And climate control will remain science fiction for the foreseeable future, so continuing to pour vast sums of money into the impossible goal of “stopping climate change” is irresponsible.

At this point, all the Canadian government need do is play honest broker, convening open, unbiased public hearings into the climatic impact of the oil sands. Qualified scientists from all sides of the debate would be invited to testify so that the public, the press, and political leaders would learn about the vast uncertainties in the field. Public support for expensive GHG reduction programs would consequently wither, and the anti-Keystone XL campaign would fail without the government even committing themselves to a position on the science.

But the time for such hearings is short: the final decision on Keystone XL will be made this summer. Hope that the outcome will be better than in 2012 without sensibly addressing the main issue driving the anti-pipeline campaign is wishful thinking neither Canada nor the U.S. can afford.