Oil sands debate not about good vs. evil – by Margaret Wente (Globe and Mail – November 25, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

I’m always amazed by the propaganda and parochialism that swamp our debates over energy development – especially when it comes to the oil sands, or Keystone. Too many people frame the issues as a medieval morality play – as if deciding to develop our abundant natural resources and send them to market is a pact with the devil.

Well, oil is not the devil. In fact, oil and other energy resources are the salvation for billions of impoverished people in developing nations. You can’t have human development without energy. And without energy – which, for the next few decades, mostly means fossil fuels – they will continue to lead miserable, degrading lives. So the next time you hear someone argue that we should leave our oil in the ground, give a thought to the people sleeping in the streets of Calcutta. It would be nice if they could cook their food with solar energy. But that day is still a long way off.

The biggest demand for energy no longer comes from the developed nations, where carbon emissions are actually in decline.
It’s coming from India, China and the rest of the developing world, which now account for the majority of global emissions every year. China now emits as much CO2 per person as the European Union. This dramatic shift in global emissions makes the Kyoto Protocol – which is based on the global distribution of emissions in 1990 – hopelessly obsolete.

By 2030, the world will be using a lot more energy, but the mix won’t be too different from what it is now – mostly oil, natural gas and coal, with a bit of help from renewables. The oil sands are an important but not very big part of that mix. And they are not a significant factor in global warming, according to the International Energy Agency’s Fatih Birol, a leading climate economist. Whether we extract the oil doesn’t make much difference to the planet one way or another.

While we’re on the subject of myth-busting, here’s another reality check. Canada is not a petro-state. We aren’t Venezuela, or Saudi Arabia, or even Norway, whose economies are dominated by resource development. Our economy is among most diversified in the world. And we are less dependent on resource extraction than we’ve been in many years. Oil, gas and mining account for 8.3 per cent of the total economy – far less than manufacturing does. The oil sands make up only 1.8 per cent of GDP. The share of Canadians working in these industries is just 1.5 per cent. The oil sands are less important to the economy than either the environmental lobby or the energy lobby want you to believe.

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