Every now and then you see a sad story on TV about someone who won the lottery, and then their life went to shit (they gave it all away or lost it gambling, became an alcoholic, etc.). They invariably say at the end, “I wish I’d never won the lottery.”
I kind of feel the same way about oil. I am starting to wish Canada didn’t have any. The oil boom (driven mostly by world prices and Alberta’s oil sands) is wreaking havoc with our fiscal federation, our environment, our geopolitical space in the world (we supply more oil to the U.S. than Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq combined — something that doesn’t exactly make me feel comfortable), our macroeconomy (the sky-high dollar and Bank of Canada attitude on interest rates are both attributable to the boom).
Here’s my take on just two of the “problems with oil” — fiscal and environmental — in this week’s Globe. I think calling for a deliberate slowdown on new developments is a demand that could have real resonance — even in Alberta. People there are really questioning the value of this boom. I should know, I was born there (ha ha). Here’s the column…
Fiscal and Environmental Federalismby
Federal Environment Minister Rona Ambrose released her new “green” plan last week, to a chorus of boos from pretty well everyone the plan was intended to impress. (Big business loved it, but they were already firmly in the Tory camp.) The Clean Air Act does not mention the word “
Kyoto” once. Instead, it aims to reduce the pollution “intensity” of industry, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by far-off 2050 (by which time any surviving members of Harper’s cabinet will be safely ensconced in air-conditioned old folks’ homes).
Pundits have suggested the Harper government’s sudden discovery of the environment is political salve for its decision to postpone (probably forever) its equally high-profile promise to fix the “fiscal imbalance.” Indeed, there’s a common thread linking these two issues: the government’s continuing political allegiance to the West, and to the oil industry in particular, means that neither of these promises is remotely feasible.
Here’s why Ottawa wants to forget the fiscal imbalance as quickly as possible. Sky-high prices and booming oil exports have completely redrawn Canada’s fiscal map. This year, for the first time in Canadian history, Ontario’s GDP per capita will be lower than the Canadian average (in 2005, it was just 1 percent higher, and Ontario’s manufacturing has been shrinking steadily all year).
On the other side of the ledger, there are now three provinces with above-average GDP. They have one thing in common: oil. The size of Alberta’s economic advantage has become shocking (ballooning from 25 percent a decade ago to 60 percent today). Saskatchewan’s GDP per capita slightly exceeded the national average last year, and will rise further this year. The third “have” province, amazingly, is Newfoundland and Labrador. Its GDP per capita was one-third below the Canadian average in 1996; this year it will be higher. (The fact that wages in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland are still well below average, and Alberta’s only 5 percent higher, is testimony to how little of this oil-fueled GDP ever finds its way into workers’ pockets.)
Any sensible vision of fiscal equalization must involve redistributing money from oil-producing provinces (or at least from super-profitable oil companies) to the rest of the country. Is this going to happen? Stephen Harper’s former Reform Party was born in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and he holds 40 of the two provinces’ 42 seats. Harper’s Saskatchewan members were worried enough to write him earlier this year, urging the continuing exclusion of oil from Saskatchewan’s equalization formula (something that makes as much sense as excluding potatoes from PEI’s calculation). They needn’t have worried: the issue is dead and buried.
Regional differences in greenhouse gas pollution, if anything, are even more shocking than our increasingly unbalanced economic federation. And they have the same ultimate source: oil, or more particularly oil sands. (Here we can move Newfoundland back into the “rest of Canada”, since its conventional oil fields pollute much less than oil sands.)
In 2003 (the latest year for which data is available) Alberta and Saskatchewan produced 70 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita. The rest of Canada produced 16 tons per capita – barely one-fifth as much. And Alberta and Saskatchewan’s booming oil sands emissions are the dominant reason why Canada is busting through its Kyoto targets. Ottawa’s own studies estimate that oil sands production (which the industry wants to quadruple) will add close to 90 megatonnes of new emissions by 2020 – accounting for about 60 percent of Canada’s total emissions growth over that period.
To put this in perspective, think back to Rick Mercer’s TV ads extolling each and every Canadian to reduce their personal emissions by one tonne (the program was cancelled shortly after Harper took office). Even if we all met our “one tonne challenge”, the resulting savings will be wiped out three times over by new oil sands-related emissions by 2020.
A “green plan with gonads” (to borrow Garth Turner’s memorable phrase) absolutely must include measures to slow down the oil sands juggernaut – something we should do for economic and fiscal reasons, too, not just environmental. Yet the Conservatives won’t contemplate this, any more than they would contemplate fiscal arrangements which might similarly discomfort their controlling Western base.
On both fiscal and environmental affairs, therefore, the Tories can only pretend to be a national party. I suppose this explains why their dreams of a quick majority government are slipping away so quickly.
Believe it or not, Jim Stanford was born and raised in Alberta.
Table 1: GDP Per Capita, 1996-2006, % of Cda.Avg.
1996 2005 2006
Actual Actual Jim’s Estimate
Ontario 110% 101% 99%
Alberta 126% 156% 160%+
Saskatchewan 100% 101% 102%
Nfld.& Lab. 66% 98% 100%+
Table 2. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Per Capita, 2003
Emissions Pop’n Emissions per Cap.
(Mt) (000) (tonnes)
Canada 740 31,669 23.4
Alberta 224 3,160 70.9
Saskatchewan 65 995 65.3
Alta.&Sask. 289 4,155 69.6
Rest of Canada 451 27,514 16.4
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