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What do you say, Justin? A look into Canada’s Oil Industry and the Environment

Canadian Correspondent Victoria Hoare (@Victoria_hch) looks at Justin Trudeau's policies regarding the oil industry in Canada, and reflects what this means for him as a politician.

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The TransCanada Keystone Pipeline. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Justin Trudeau is generally considered as a favoured politician worldwide. He has promoted gender equality, free speech, and overall appears to be a man of the people. In a recent visit to the University of Calgary on January 24th, Justin Trudeau held a talk that hundreds of students attended. However, their attendance was not only to partake in a Q and A, but also in a protest outside; some Canadians believe Trudeau’s policies are hurting not only them but the West as a whole. This was an event of interest to me: I has categorised Trudeau as a good politician along with much of the world. I had become susceptible to the media portraying him in this perfect light and never questioned his policies. Now I am – how can I idolise him blindly without questioning his actions?

As a conservation biologist, both my life and my degree are angled towards creating an environmentally friendly future. I was happy to hear that several times during the event Trudeau commented on how much he wanted to help the environment, especially as this was a large part of his campaign against Stephen Harper back in 2015. One of his comments that stuck with me was “I want to work with every province, all the coast guards and the indigenous groups, to ensure the best job is done regarding the pipelines […] to mitigate the problems caused and to move forward with the thought of a productive economy and with the environment in mind” 

Photo republished with permission of Edward Liu.

It is a relief that a major politician, one famous around the world, is paying attention to the environment. Not only that but he is acknowledging the current day problems that indigenous groups face in regards to land misuse, extreme sexism towards indigenous women and prejudice in general. This is a right step towards a healthier and safer future, for everyone and the planet.

However, in the same hour where he recognised the threat of climate change, he also said that “the environment and the economy go together”. This is where my greatest unease lies; economic growth rarely occurs without some detrimental impact on the environment, especially when that economic growth is based on the approval of pipelines and focuses on the increased export of oil. When someone comments on how a fossil fuel, the extraction of which and the burning of which can be considered one of the major contributors to climate change, I struggle to appreciate the sentiment behind doing this in an “environmentally responsible way”.

It’s an area that causes a significant amount of tension, especially in Alberta where, in 2012 the mining, oil and gas extraction industry made up 23.3% of Alberta’s GDP and 7.7% of all jobs.1 It is understandable that people are scared, that people need job security not just for themselves but to put a roof over their families’ heads and to put food on the table. In the face of Trudeau phasing out the use of Alberta’s oil sands (bituminous sands, unconventional petroleum deposit sites) many people have come up to protest; this is their lives and their tomorrow that relies on sites such as these. There has been significant backlash against Trudeau against his choice of words, leading to him reiterating his statement to “we need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels”. On this point I agree whole-heartedly with him. In the Third Quarter Fiscal Update and Economic Statement for 2015-2016 it was seen that the price of Western Canadian Select (WCS), which acts as the Alberta heavy oil benchmark, fell be US$20 per barrel. This is the lowest level since trading began in 20043.

The beginning of the protest, raising questions on the Carbon tax and the closing of the oil sands. Photo republished with permission of Edward Liu.

What does this mean? Potentially, several things. The general world view may be moving towards a greener alternative, people are striving more to protect the world and this is reflected in a decrease in demand for Canada’s oil products. Or maybe it’s based much more on the way the world economy works and Alberta has just been hitting a weak few years. What we do know is that despite being a provider for any jobs, the oil industry has a sell-by date. Fossil fuels, no matter how safely they’re transported, or how well the PM listens to the indigenous peoples on how to best safeguard the environment, will run out.

There is potential for the PM to continue phasing out the use of oil sands across all of Canada and to even head towards renewable energies. This will not come easily, however, and the opinion of the public, particularly in the oil-based industry of Alberta, will not come round to that way of thinking anytime soon. I still respect the Canadian prime minister- anyone who advocates pro-environmental standards, recognises the need to fight for equality and even pays heed to the struggles of all his citizens, the impoverished, the young and the indigenous, not just the wealthy, is a good politician. However, like all good politicians, he must also stay on the good side of the majority of his public and that means that those other issues will often take a back seat when Canada’s reliance to the oil industry is concerned.

Overall? I appreciate that Trudeau can recognise these issues for what they are, especially coming into power after a PM that simply didn’t care about the environment, but my biggest revelation is that despite this, there is still an extremely long way to go in becoming environmentally and equality geared as a society and I’m not convinced that it will happen fast enough. For now, it’s best to keep fighting because we are, no matter how slowly, moving in the right direction.

References

  1. “Mining and Oil and Gas Extraction”. OCCinfo: Occupations and Educational Programs. 2015. Retrieved 17 March 2016 ; Economic results”. Government of Alberta. October 25, 2015. Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  2. 2015–16 Third Quarter Fiscal Update and Economic Statement (PDF) (Report). Edmonton, Alberta: Department of Finance, Government of Alberta. February 2016. p. 15. Retrieved 16 March 2016
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