On July 15, a state-of-the-art new pipeline near Fort McMurray, Alberta, ruptured, spilling five million litres of bitumen, sand and waste water over 16,000 square metres — one of the largest pipeline oil spills in Canadian history. Two days later, a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Montana, spilling 160,000 litres and forcing evacuation of nearby homes.
At the same time, while forest fires raged across large swathes of Western Canada — thanks to hotter, dryer conditions and longer fire seasons driven in part by climate change — Canadian premiers met in St. John's, Newfoundland, to release their national energy strategy.
The premiers' Canadian Energy Strategy focuses on energy conservation and efficiency, clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. But details are vague and there's no sense of urgency. We need a response like the U.S. reaction to Pearl Harbor or the Soviet Sputnik launch!
The premiers seemingly want it both ways. Despite its call to "Build on the ongoing efforts of individuals, businesses, governments and others to improve energy efficiency, lower the carbon footprint, and improve understanding of energy in Canada," the strategy promotes fossil fuel business as usual, including expanded pipeline, oil sands and liquefied natural gas development, including more fracking.
The premiers' plan is a non-binding framework, described as a "flexible, living document that will further enable provinces and territories to move forward and collaborate on common energy-related interests according to their unique strengths, challenges and priorities." It doesn't include specifics on how to revamp our energy production and distribution systems, but buys time until the next elections roll around.
Although the language about climate change and clean energy is important, the strategy remains stuck in the fossil fuel era. As Climate Action Network Canada executive director Louise Comeau said in a news release, "Governments discriminate against smoking and toxics in food and consumer products. What's needed now is discriminatory policy against fossil fuels if we are going to drastically reduce the carbon pollution putting our health and well-being at risk."
Fossil fuel development has spurred economic development, created jobs and provided many other benefits, but the risks now outweigh those benefits. The costs in dollars and lives of pollution, habitat and wildlife degradation, pipeline and railcar spills, and climate change — all getting worse as populations grow, energy needs increase and fossil fuel reserves become increasingly scarce and difficult to exploit — have become unsustainable.
Even job creation is no longer a reason to continue our mad rush to expand development and export of oil sands bitumen, fracked gas and coal. Many fossil fuel reserves are now seen as stranded assets that will continue to decline in value as the world shifts to clean energy and the scramble to exploit resources gluts the market. The Climate Action Network points out that Clean Energy Canada's 2015 report on renewable energy trends showed that "global investors moved USD$295 billion in 2014 into renewable energy-generation projects — an increase of 17 per cent over 2013."
Yet, many of our leaders are still pinning their hopes on rapid oil sands expansion, massive increases in fracking for liquefied natural gas and new and expanded pipelines across the country — with benefits flowing more to industry than citizens.
It's refreshing to see provincial premiers at least recognizing the threat of climate change and the need to address it through conservation, efficiency and clean technology, but we need a far greater shift to keep the problems we've created from getting worse. There are many benefits to doing so, including more and better jobs, a stronger economy, healthier citizens and reduced health-care costs, and greater preservation of our rich natural heritage.
The recent spate of pipeline and railcar oil spills, along with disasters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, are the result of rapid expansion of fossil fuel development, as industry and governments race to get the dirty products to market before demand dries up.
Canada's premiers should take these issues seriously and commit to a faster shift from fossil fuels as they continue to develop their energy strategy. They must also stress the importance of having similar, stronger action from the federal government — and so should we all.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.