Edmonton

OPINION | Oil is not dead but Kenney will need Trudeau's help to keep it on life support

When Elizabeth May, parliamentary leader of the federal Green Party, proclaimed on Tuesday that "oil is dead," she was correct in a philosophical sense. But not in a practical, real world sense.

'Please stop kicking us when we're down,' Alberta premier says

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will need help from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau if he wants support in keeping the energy industry on life support. (Canadian Press photos)

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


"Oil is dead," says Elizabeth May.

No, oil is not dead. But it does have an expiry date.

Even Stephen Harper acknowledged that when, as prime minister in 2015, he joined other Group of Seven leaders in a pledge to stop burning fossil fuels by the end of the century.

"We emphasize that deep cuts in global greenhouse-gas emissions are required with a decarbonization of the global economy over the course of this century," said the leaders of the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada in a communique.

Of course, this was an aspirational target, not a binding agreement.

And it's not as if any of us today have a "to do" list set up for the year 2100. It's a bit far off, to say the least.

But the world is headed in that direction.

So when May, parliamentary leader of the federal Green Party, proclaimed on Tuesday that "oil is dead," she was correct in a philosophical sense. But not in a practical, real-world sense.

Yes, oil has been driven to record low prices by a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russo-Saudi oil-production fight, but that doesn't mean the industry is no longer viable.

And it doesn't mean demand won't bounce back after the crisis is over.

When the world starts turning again, it will again be a squeaky wheel demanding its grease.

Oil will be important for decades

Even though renewables are the fastest-growing sources of energy worldwide, the use of fossil fuels is still expected to grow over the next 30 years. It's just that the pace of growth for oil is slowing.

As University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach pointed out in a series of tweets this week using information from International Energy Outlook, demand is expected to be more modest than anticipated. Projections that had the consumption of fossil-fuel liquids hitting 120 million barrels a day in 2040 now say that won't happen until 2050.

Of course, Premier Jason Kenney is worried that some Alberta producers won't be around to see the recovery.

"Our best intelligence is that we will be dealing with a low-price environment for probably 12 to 18 months," Kenney said last week. He is pressing Ottawa for up to $30 billion in emergency loans for the province's beleaguered industry to keep it afloat.

I suppose you could say oil is not dead but it needs to be on life support for a year or so.

If nothing else, May's comment gives Kenney a political pinata to bash. For an Alberta premier, there is nothing like having an enemy outside the gates to help rally support within.

That used to be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But since the pandemic hit, Kenney has been praising Trudeau when overtly happy with the prime minister and biting his tongue when unhappy with the prime minister. I suppose that's what happens when you're asking somebody for $30 billion.

But Kenney wasn't lacking for enemies this week.

Kenney returns fire 

While May was planning oil's funeral, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet declared Alberta's "tar sands" are "condemned" and said the federal government should be supporting renewable energy projects, not the Trans Mountain pipeline that will pump more oilsands bitumen to the West Coast for shipment offshore.

Kenney immediately took to the ramparts to return fire.

"It's deeply regrettable that we would see national political leaders piling on Albertans and energy workers at a time of great trial for us," Kenney said Thursday. He pointed to the federal tax money collected from Alberta over the years that eventually became transfer payments to Quebec. "Please stop kicking us when we're down," he added.

Kenney should realize by now that when it comes to oil, he has no allies in Quebec's current political leadership. And he should realize that while it was easy for him as opposition leader to attack Alberta's NDP government for failing to get Quebec onside, he's failing just as badly.

The day after Kenney won the 2019 provincial election, Quebec Premier François Legault shot down Kenney's idea of reviving Energy East, saying, "There's no social acceptability for an additional oil pipeline."

Everybody in this conversation speaks French but Kenney is talking "money" while Legault and Blanchet are talking "environment." This has been a growing problem for Alberta since Ralph Klein, as premier two decades ago, threw open the door to the unfettered expansion of the oilsands while ignoring the realities of human-made climate change.

Targeted by environmentalists, Alberta became known as the home of "dirty" oil — a term used by Legault himself to describe the oilsands.

Canadians such as Legault and Blanchet are not keen to have the oilsands on federally funded life support. It's easy to see why that makes Kenney's head explode, alongside a lot of Albertans.

Ironically, Kenney's biggest ally right now is his biggest nemesis: Trudeau.

"We need to support Albertans and other people working in the energy sector through this incredibly difficult time," Trudeau said on Thursday, rejecting May's oil-is-dead comment. "Not just because that's what we do as Canadians, but because we need their capacity to innovate and figure out how we're going to move forward toward our greater green goals."

The future might be green. But a purely green future is still decades and decades away.

For now, it's green mixed with black.

Oil might have an expiry date but it is not dead. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

now