Need for petroleum

Need for petroleum

Posted 26 July 2011, by Merran Smith (Vancouver Sun), The Windsor Star (Postmedia Network),

Recently, I sat down with a dozen of the nation’s energy ministers and hundreds of mostly oil industry executives in Kananaskis, Alta. I was there to share a new energy vision for Canada, a bold and credible vision of the future – one that more than 150 companies and organizations, together representing more than one million Canadians, have thrown their support behind.

In this future, Canada has drastically reduced its demand for energy, while obtaining the majority of the energy it still needs from clean and renewable sources. Our economy thrives, creating jobs and wealth by exporting innovations in efficiency and clean-energy services. Canada becomes a leader in the multibilliondollar global clean-tech market, while steadily reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading economies are already on the path to this future. Regrettably, ours is not.

The good news is Canada’s energy ministers emerged from their Kananaskis meetings with a plan that aspires to, in part, “enable Canada’s transition to a lower-carbon emission economy.” Unfortunately, this is overshadowed by a petroleum-focused strategy that appears to assume the world will always thirst for Canada’s oil and gas.

This assumption may be deeply flawed. Along with Europe and other major economies, the United States and China – our current and future energy buyers – are making unprecedented renewableenergy investments to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

Declaring “we can break our dependence on oil,” earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to roll one million battery-powered cars onto America’s roads by 2015. That was considered ambitious until a month later China announced it would place one million electric vehicles on its roads that same year, and by 2020 would build 100 million such cars each year thereafter.

Around the same time, the European Commission announced a policy to purge Europe’s cities of gasoline-and diesel-powered vehicles. Half of petroleum-fuelled cars and trucks will be banished from Paris, Rome and dozens of other major centres by 2030. By about 2050 these cities will be freed forever from the smog, noise and soot of internal combustion engines.

The truth is, these countries don’t care about petroleum; they care about moving people and goods where they need to go. If they can do that in ways that are cheaper, cleaner and safer, they will do so. That’s why they are training the brightest, hiring the best and incubating new technologies to wean themselves off hydrocarbons. In 2010, according to the World Economic Forum, global investment in clean technology topped $243 billion, 30 per cent higher than the previous year.

China and other markets will, in the short term, increase their oil imports. But there’s a real possibility these economies will eventually benefit from the inevitable mass commercialization of sustainable innovations from investments in clean-tech research and development.

Former international trade minister David Emerson acknowledged this in a recent report on Alberta’s future.

“We must plan for the eventuality that oilsands production will almost certainly be displaced at some point in the future by lower-cost and/or lower-emission alternatives … We may have heavy oil to sell, but few or no profitable markets wishing to buy.”

Recent research conducted by Stanford University and the University of California suggests this kind of future is plausible. The peer-reviewed study concludes that the world can meet all of its new energy needs with wind, water and solar by 2030, and can replace all pre-existing energy sources – such as nuclear and coal – with these renewable sources by 2050.

Petroleum will certainly play an important role in our lives and our economy as we navigate this new energy future.

But if Canada continues to place hydrocarbons at the centre of its economic and energy strategy, a rapid global shift away from these fuels will jeopardize our long-term economic stability, public services and quality of life.

Canada needs a plan that will prevent this from happening.

British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and some Atlantic provinces are taking steps to embrace the low-carbon economy and put in place the policies needed to move there. These regions are already benefiting from new energy jobs and investments.

We can, and must, create a national energy vision that builds on these regional successes and that positions Canada to prosper and lead through this energy revolution.

It is a national mission – our national imperative – that should unite us all.

Merran Smith directs the Energy Initiative at Tides Canada, a national charitable foundation. This column first appeared in The Vancouver Sun

© Copyright (c) The Windsor Star

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