Wall’s climate plan is about sucking up, not saving the planet

On the road in oil country Valerie Zink and Emily Eaton spoke with actual rural Saskatchewanians.

Province | by Paul Dechene

Nobody can call the Saskatchewan Party a pack of climate science denying troglodytes any more. When Brad Wall released his Climate Change White Paper on Oct. 18 before the Regina and District Chamber of Commerce, his government laid out their position on climate change in the very first paragraph and repeated it more succinctly on page six:

“Climate change is real, and is exacerbated by human activity.”

Well, “exacerbate” undersells humanity’s impact on the climate. Our activities are the main drivers of global warming, after all.

And while most of the world’s scientists agree that global warming is an urgent threat and will require a significant shift away from the use of fossil fuels, Wall’s plan to cope with climate change — his counterpunch to Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposed carbon pricing scheme — advocates for carrying on business-as-usual: fund carbon capture so we can keep burning coal. Abandon the carbon tax so that the fossil fuel industry can continue to grow. Slow down introduction of regulations to curb methane production. Exploit nuclear power. Support Saskatchewan’s modest commitment to renewable energy.

Hardly a daring new direction.

“I think [the White Paper] definitely represents the oil industry,” says Emily Eaton, a professor of geography at the University of Regina specializing in political economy and natural resource economies.

“And it goes out of its way to advocate that we do nothing differently. So we’ll use [carbon capture and storage] technology so we can continue to have a coal industry. We’ll be one of the last provinces in Canada to have a coal industry, probably.

“There’s one statistic: 17 per cent of Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gas emissions come from just the waste from the oil and gas industry. So that’s gas that’s flared and vented into the atmosphere or that leaks out of wellheads or pipes. So we do have a lot of low hanging fruit. But according to Wall, it would be too expensive to do anything about it.

“So the White Paper is definitely everything the oil and gas — and I guess the carbon industry, as it’s coal as well — wanted to see.”

Mark Bigland-Pritchard Energy, an energy consultant and spokesperson for Climate Justice Saskatoon, comes to a similar conclusion about the White Paper.

“There’s a real obsession there with carbon capture. It’s interesting. It doesn’t say anything about applying it in Saskatchewan. He talks a lot about trying to sell the idea to various countries in Asia but I can’t see the business plan for that because we don’t have the patents. Shell has the patents for the key processes happening at Boundary Dam,” says Bigland-Pritchard.

“The whole things seems to me to be an elaborate justification for the path that he’s already taking, which is go for carbon capture. Which obviously fits with the old SaskPower narrative,” he says. “It’s a strategy for keeping energy in the hands of fossil corporations.”

Eaton, along with photographer Valerie Zink, have just launched the book Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy. For it, the duo traveled rural Saskatchewan in 2014 at the height of the oil boom and learned first-hand how the people who work and live around the fossil fuel industry feel about the resource sector, and about government efforts to regulate it.

And it is that rural Saskatchewan constituency that Brad Wall’s Climate Change White Paper was tailor made for.

“I don’t think Brad Wall cares at all about how many climate change rallies are going to be held in Saskatoon. Even if they got a thousand people, I don’t think he’d care,” says Eaton. “But if rural people start talking about the impacts of oil in their communities, that will garner a different sort of attention from the premier.”

“I think [Wall] probably understands that climate change is a real thing and we need to do something about it. But I think he’s just so concerned about his constituency and he knows who butters his bread. The oil and gas industry is a huge player in the province. And his political base is in those rural areas as well.

“And so I think it’s really too bad that the left has allowed him to frame the whole debate and the future of rural Saskatchewan, because if we actually had something credible to offer as an alternative we could wipe away that fear. Because his plan is really based on fear: ‘We can’t do anything,’ ‘We can’t move forward,’ ‘We have to dig our heels in.’ And I think that people instinctively know that the future of the world is not going to be with carbon-based resources, but it’s scary to imagine what would happen without it.

“In the absence of the left offering a concrete alternative that people can actually imagine being part of that isn’t just threatening how people understand their future, then Wall gets to frame this whole debate. And he’s just using scaremongering.”

The National Energy Plan All Over Again?

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada would start pricing carbon, University of Regina professor Emily Eaton was interviewing people in rural Saskatchewan about the oil industry. She quickly got a sense how they felt about Trudeau’s plan.

It could become as reviled as his father’s National Energy Program.

“It was really interesting that a lot of the rural areas — unlike, for example, with things like mining, where a large corporation comes in from the outside and is seen as a foreign imposition on the landscape — the oil industry is understood in those communities as more homegrown,” says Eaton. “And they don’t need as much of the social license.

“But what is seen as foreign: some people talked about how Trudeau is now in power and is imposing this [carbon price], and people knew he was going to impose some form of carbon tax or climate change commitments that would, in rural people’s minds, imperil the oil and gas industry here,” she says.

“That was always seen as the threat that’s coming from the outside.”

“The industry is us,” says Eaton. “And it’s homegrown. And it’s filled with our boys and everything good.

The carbon tax and climate change is imposed by the outside — by Central Canada,” she says. “And it’s threatening our way of life.” /Paul Dechene

Carbon Capture: Worth The Investment?

While putting a price on carbon basically imposes a market-based solution onto the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, Brad Wall’s Climate Change White Paper seems very focussed on funnelling money into Saskatchewan’s carbon capture and storage system at Boundary Dam 3.

Just like SkipTheDishes, the government picks the winners.

But is the Boundary Dam 3 carbon capture system a winner? Climate Justice Saskatoon’s Mark Bigland-Pritchard doesn’t think so.

“The Boundary Dam 3 cost something approaching $1.5 billion,” says Bigland-Pritchard. “With that money we could have produced wind farms capable of producing about twice as much electricity as Boundary Dam 3 will. And that’s even before we pay for the coal.

“And those economics work through most of the world as well. So the economic argument is just not there, as far as I’m concerned.”

Add to that far-from-certain effectiveness of carbon capture technology.

“We don’t know yet whether this technology is going to work or not,” Bigland-Pritchard says. “They said at the outset that Boundary Dam 3 would save a million tonnes of CO2 a year. They’re now — after the difficulties they had, when they were really operating at 40 per cent effectiveness or less — they now think that they’ve got things in order but they’re now saying 800,000 [tonnes] instead of a million. So we’re down 20 per cent already.

“Are we going to get back up to a million? I don’t know,” he says. “But I think it’s too early to say this technology has worked, even in those rather technical terms.” /Paul Dechene