OPINION: Richard Cannings — Bridging the divide in the oil sands debate

MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay talks about old and the environment.

The conversation around pipelines and oil sands in Canada has been so heated and polarized it’s difficult to sort hype from fact. It’s often hard to have an informed conversation about the issue, let alone an informed debate.

On the one side we have people who are deeply concerned about the climate emergency facing us. It is clear that continued expansion of the oilsands will make it impossible for Canada to meet emissions targets agreed to under the Paris agreement.

On the other side we have people who fear that restrictions on the growth of the fossil fuel sector in Canada will result in significant job losses, jobs that provide good salaries for families in Alberta and across the country.

Can we bridge this divide? Can we take meaningful action on climate change and maintain a healthy economy without seriously impacting workers in the resource sector? I think we can, but some misleading narratives are making that more difficult at the moment.

Oil industry and government ads say that we need a pipeline to tidewater to get access to Asian markets, access that would guarantee us better prices for our oil. But the Trans Mountain pipeline has carried oil to the Pacific for over a half century and almost none of it has gone to Asia, because the big demand and best prices for our bitumen is — and will continue to be — in the United States.

The significant price differentials that some Canadian oil exporters have occasionally faced are due to pipeline and refinery shutdowns that constrain shipments — but this only affects about 20 percent of our exports. The rest of the Canadian industry, which has access to their own upgraders and refineries, has been getting world prices for their oil all along.

This push for more pipelines is not so much about better prices for our oil — it’s about expanding production in the oil sands — which will also increase our greenhouse gas emissions. So, the real question facing Canadians is “Do we want to invest $15 billion of taxpayers’ money to build a pipeline and lock ourselves into expanded production of expensive oil, in a world where oil demand is predicted to decline over the next 30 years?”

The NDP believe the answer to that question is an unequivocal no.

So, what will guide us out of this polarized debate? Recent opinion polls have revealed that the environment is the No. 1 issue on the minds of Canadians. “More important than jobs, more important than health care, more important than immigration,” says pollster Nik Nanos.

We need a concerted, non-partisan effort to tackle climate change and ensure that our children will enjoy a clean, healthy environment. But that plan must provide good jobs for those who may lose employment in the oil patch as that sector shrinks over the coming years.

I’ve attended “green new deal” workshops in Rossland and Penticton, events that challenge Canadians to build a bold plan from the grass roots for the transition to a zero-carbon future. Common themes arise from each table at these workshops — for example, stopping the subsidies to fossil fuel industries and instead incentivizing the shift to renewable energy.

The NDP has a detailed plan called Power to Change that answers this challenge. Power to Change will create a cleaner environment, hundreds of thousands of good jobs and a healthy economy. For details go online to ndp.ca/power-to-change.

Richard Cannings is the NDP MP for South Okanagan-West Kootenay

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