A War without Winners

The Alberta government has set aside $30 million to fund a “war room” to fight real and perceived distortions of facts about Alberta oilsands.  And they also plan to investigate sources of financing of various NGOs that opposed ‘Tarsands’ and pipelines.  

For a decade or so, to fight climate change, US and Canadian NGOs worked to strangle the oilsands by limiting its markets.  And they found willing partners among a number of First Nations and the British Columbia government.  The federal government got on board by attempting a “Grand Bargain” to reject some – but not all pipelines from Alberta. 

Why? – So what motivated the environmental movement to target oilsands?  Simply put, because the oilsands are big. A reservoir of 165 billion barrels – the third largest reserves in the world. Oilsands development is more carbon intensive to develop, roughly 14% higher than conventional oil. And with its massive tailings ponds it was a big target for environmental NGOs. Couple that with a federal government with an anti-oilsands bias and a federal Court that is happy to move the legal goalposts. 

 Yes, the ‘constrained market’ strategy has dealt a blow to oilsands development. All this while Canada emits 1.6% of global emissions.

But the strategy was miscalculated; since it didn’t address global supply and demand.  

So, while tactics to hamper oilsands played out, new technology unlocked huge reserves in the USA. And Middle Eastern oil continued to flow to meet increasing global demand; driven by a growing world population and Asian and Indian economic prosperity.  

And as for greenhouse gases, China’s coal fired electricity systems increased by more than 60% between 2005 and 2014.  By 2007, CO₂ emissions from the developing world exceeded those of industrialized nations. 

Take a look at the global emission numbers in the figures below:

Greenhouse Gas emissions growth in the decade of the ‘Tarsands Battle’
Coal consumption by region million tonnes oil equivalent 1993 to 2018: BP 2019


The environmental movement’s battle with oilsands has many casualties.  It has resulted in lost resource revenue of perhaps $80 million per day along with a flight of capital from Canada to other jurisdictions. The battle slowed pipeline development and extended and deepened the economic downturn in Alberta.  That in turn, contributed to larger budget deficits and denied the NDP a potential second term as the Alberta government.  It spawned a rebirth of western alienation and inclinations to separate. It will prove to be toxic to the Liberal brand in Alberta in the upcoming election and perhaps a generation.  

In BC, the ‘Tarsands war’ created a schism among First Nations. It deepened frustration and polarized public opinion. And it resulted in protests both legal and otherwise.  

Ultimately the tactic to strangle oilsands will be without winners, only losers. Severely normal Albertans might reconcile themselves to these unhappy outcomes:

  • It will be inconsequential in reducing global emissions.  
  • Some oilsands expansion will be delayed or foregone. 
  • Frayed relationships between Alberta and the rest of the federation will not be easily healed. 
  • Nationally, statesmen-like leadership on climate change and our Paris Accord commitments is unlikely.
  • Climate change will be treated like just another wedge issue! It will someone else’s problem to solve.