Photo: Does selling off our resources make us an energy superpower?

Energy is on everyone's minds these days. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to make Canada an energy superpower, fuelled mostly by Alberta's tar sands. (Credit: Kris Krug via Flickr)

By David Suzuki

Energy is on everyone's minds these days. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to make Canada an energy superpower, fuelled mostly by Alberta's tar sands.

Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Alison Redford, elected to lead a province with a strong economy, now finds energy price fluctuations are reducing provincial revenues. Saskatchewan is booming from oil, gas and uranium revenues, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark plans to vastly expand exploitation of liquefied natural gas, which requires huge amounts of energy and involves the highly contentious practice of fracking.

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While Quebec Premier Pauline Marois maintains a moratorium on fracking, New Brunswick Premier David Alward claims it's an energy opportunity for his province. Former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's progressive Green Energy Act is under serious attack, and Prime Minister Harper eagerly embraces exploration for oil as Arctic sea ice and tundra melt from the warming climate.

While the federal government demonizes environmentalists as 'radicals' bent on derailing exploitation plans for the tar sands and other natural resources, opposition is rising against pipelines to transport Alberta's diluted bitumen to the B.C. coast via Enbridge's Northern Gateway or to Texas refineries via the Keystone XL. Much of the oil would be exported to countries like China, where the extreme negative effects of fossil fuel pollution are increasing daily.

Politicians who want to make significant change must focus primarily on re-election if they are to see their agendas come to fruition. That means they must respond to immediate economic demands while leaving longer-term problems like climate change and water issues on the back burner. Surely the enduring consequences of today's actions or inactions must be a priority. We'll be living with the ramifications of the current crop of politicians' decisions and actions long after they've been relegated to history.

Crisis is a powerful motivator, as we saw during the economic crash of 2008. In a matter of weeks, President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, committed hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out banks and automobile companies — without imposing any conditions that might get them to change their ways. I was astounded at the speed and scale of these actions, compared to the ineffectual snail's pace on ecological issues that threaten the survival of our species and our way of life and society.

The science has been in for more than two decades: Human use of fossil fuels creating unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere, leading to climate and weather effects that will be chaotic and devastating. Continued increases in emissions will only exacerbate what is already an out-of-control atmospheric transformation of the biosphere — our only home.

We claim brainpower makes us superior to the rest of life on this planet. But what use is intelligence if we don't use it to respond to threats and opportunities? After all, foresight was a great human attribute that brought us to a position of dominance on the planet. We used our knowledge and experiences to look ahead and recognize potential dangers and favourable circumstances so we could take some control over our destiny by acting to avoid hazards and exploit possibilities.

This is Canada's moment. We are confronting a crisis with the economy and energy. No economy can grow forever; it is simply impossible on a finite planet. Shouldn't we ask what an economy is for? How much is enough? What are the limits? How do we build a sustainable economy? We have learned from painful experience in single-resource communities that relying primarily on one major component of the economy — logging, fishing, mining — makes for dangerous boom-and-bust cycles.

Nations that export fossil fuel too often become overreliant on that sector. That destabilizes the economy (as we're seeing in Alberta), distorts priorities (leading to the so-called 'Dutch disease' where other parts of the economy are neglected or ignored) and undermines democracy by holding government hostage (as we saw in the enormous lobbying power of industry in the last U.S. presidential election).

The future of energy in Canada will determine the fate of our society. It must be widely discussed, nationally as well as provincially, beyond the boundaries of politics and economics. This is about the type of country we will leave to our children and grandchildren.

March 28, 2013

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Jun 19, 2013
7:16 AM

Come on David, how then will we be able to buy a brand new Lexus every two years if your plan comes to fruition? How will we ever buy that new house in the lake community? We want our kids to go to private school. We want to be able to take at least two tropical holidays per year. We like to buy very expensive wines and spirits. We like motorized toys like quads and boats and the time to be able to play with them. Our wives want an expensive renovation. Our backyards needs to be landscaped. If your plan comes to fruition, how will we ever pay off our credit cards?

Apr 30, 2013
7:48 PM

Bolivia Set to Pass Historic ‘Law of Mother Earth’ Which Will Grant Nature Equal Rights to Humans.
All life depends on other life forms , for no life can exist without another life form present . Thus is the fundamental truth of life . We humans are dependent on other life forms outside our bodies as well as we are the host for internal life forms that we have a mutual dependency with , that being said it makes sense that Earth is a living organism in the vastness of space . As we learn more we’ll learn that life is beyond our planet and exists on other planets . To take that a step further we can say that we live in a living universe with scientific understanding of life . If Corporations can claim personhood then Nature deserves equal rights to humans as well.

Apr 02, 2013
9:26 PM

Dr. Suzuki wonders, what is an economy is for? How much is enough? What are the limits? How do we build a sustainable economy?

I have considered these kinds of questions for Canada. I believe we can plan for a sustainable future with wind, water and the sun for a clean energy economy. That’s one thing we can do. It’s our choice.

The Trottier Energy Futures Project, which the David Suzuki Foundation is a part of, just released An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada which shows that:

“Canada’s supplies of solar, wind, hydroelectric and biomass energy are much larger than the current or forecast demand for fuel and electricity, and technology costs have been falling in recent years.

But the ability to reduce GHG emissions by 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels—the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—will depend on an integrated energy system that combines individual technologies to deliver affordable, reliable, sustainable energy services.”

The Report:

However, I believe Canadians must go further than 80 per cent reductions compared to 1990 GHG levels. I think we should strive for more than 90 per cent reductions, because must of the rest of the world has so little access to energy services, we hope and wish for our neighbors to have access a more equitable share. In addition, our accounting of warming impact is well behind real scientific understanding. In other words, our GHG inventory is accounted for in a way that inherently low-balls the climate reality, unfortunately in many instances.

We are low-balling. Black carbon, is possibly the second leading cause of warming after CO2 and ahead of methane, we need to add this to the accounting.

We need to update GWP from methane leakage from end-to-end, looking at it over the integrated 20-year timeline as well, as Arctic sea ice could disappear in 10-30 years, the impact of methane leakage on aerosol particles, etc. these things are not properly accounted for, resulting in major lowballing.

Nor are health effects of ethanol fuel accounted for. Ozone formation will increase orders of magnitude here in Canada using this fuel, and 03 causes about 15% of air pollution mortality, so increasing it is bad, so ethanol, it’s less clean than even gasoline, especially in low temperatures but almost nobody’s talking about this problem.

We subsidize fossil fuels at least $2.8 billion/yr feds plus provincially. Liquid biofuels and coal-CCS subsidies but nearly nothing for basic efficiency let alone clean renewables, or EV incentives federally, which are already on the road and are 4-5 times more efficient and can run on wind and the sun.

Life-cycle emissions of oil sands are low-balled, NRCan chews the cud of Suncor and the lot, while the European Union commissioned studies say ~23% worse, Suncor and NRCan say 5~15% worse over the life-cycle per unit energy generated. Either way it’s the wrong direction.

Anyway, The Trottier Energy Futures Project in it’s inventory, it indicates ‘sort of perhaps’ the practical potential for up to 150 TWh/yr of wind energy and 150 TWh/yr of solar energy. So that’s 300 TWh/yr of combined wind and solar energy, perhaps less will be done by 2050, the report says.

Anyway, how much is this? First, it’s a trivial amount compared to the wind and solar resources available. The report makes this clear. Second, there are 8760 hrs on a typical year, so 300,000 GWh/yr divided by 8760 hours/yr, is an average combined wind and solar power output of ~34.25 GW. To put this into perspective, this is on the order of half Canada’s electricity demand (if I recall in 2005 demand was about 65 GW).

I believe we can feasibly increase the practical implementation of wind, solar, and water power in Canada. Much more than 34 GW can be harnessed from wind and solar PV. In my own inventory of the options, I have come to believe we can shift 100% to renewable energy in Canada for all purposes. Potentially this could all be done using wind, water and sun, carefully using solid biomass and biogas as bridge fuels. There’s simply no need for natural gas or liquid biofuels, let alone tar sands and offshore or Arctic drilling, whenever we focus on the solutions folks.

Imagine running aircraft on crogenic hydrogen, like the space shuttle does today. This would probably be the last thing we’d transform.

Imagine excess wind power producing electrolytic hydrogen, and then combusting the hydrogen cleanly for high-temperature processes in steel production to make the wind turbines that are powering half of Canada’s clean, renewable energy economy.

If we convert the entire nation’s energy infrastructure to one using wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, wave, run-of-the-river and large-scale hydro-power, collectively known as wind, water and sunlight technologies, I expect we might reduce Canada’s demand by ~1/3rd without even changing a light-bulb. It’s so much more efficient to drive an electric vehicle or use heat pumps, etc. If we switch to LEDs the end-use demand for lighting will go down by a factor of 20 compared to incandescent lights, so we can even do better than 1/3rd reductions, using peddle power and sustainable ways of doing things.

These are worthwhile questions to ponder together, and I think the solutions are well within reach if we put our minds to it.

Apr 02, 2013
8:36 AM

I agree that fossil fuel resources are limited, that global warming is a serious problem, and even that the oil sands, because of the energy needed to extract the resource, produce more carbon per unit of energy produced.

But, on the other hand, I also agree that conservation won’t be enough to obtain massive reductions in energy use, and that the economic consequences of direct cuts to effective consumption will be unacceptable to the majority of Canadians, who are working-class people already struggling to get by in a recession.

But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed. As the article notes, there’s uranium in Saskatchewan. Using U-238 and Thorium-232 as fuel, industrial civilization can survive long enough to achieve long-term energy sources like fusion or solar power satellites.

Mar 30, 2013
4:32 PM

So what I would like to see — and something that would really help — is a model that lets us visualize the flow of money and the flow of energy (hydro, oil, water, nuclear, data, food, etc.) amongst our economy and population within our borders and across our borders. I think that would be a tool that would allow people to make informed decisions about how to avoid free trade agreements and act ethically to become a world leader in an earth democracy. It is a big undertaking but I am sure there must be work being done on various aspects of this — something I would like to be a part of organizing if there is support for it. Please reply if you know of resources already available or have suggestions for support. If we can put together a team for this project, it might be something that could raise funds through kickstart and/or supportive foundations.

Mar 30, 2013
4:25 PM

We need to consider the kind of world we want to leave our children and grandchildren, with respect to Ontario Power Generation’s plans to build a Deep Geological Repository or Nuclear Waste Dump to bury radioactive nuclear waste within approximately 400 metres of Lake Huron. Some of this nuclear waste remains radioactive and toxic for 100,000 years. No scientist or geologist can provide us with a 100,000 year guarantee that this underground nuclear waste dump will not leak.

The Great Lakes provide the fresh drinking water for 40 million people in two countries. Any risk of nuclear contamination of our Great Lakes is too great a risk to take, and need not be taken. Would you bury your poison beside your well? Do 4,067 people in a small Ontario town deserve the POWER to make this decision on your behalf?

This is an issue that all Canadians and Americans deserve to have a voice in deciding. We believe that protection of our Great Lakes is responsible stewardship, and is of National and International importance.

Please see our information-rich website, and importantly, our Petition at

Mar 30, 2013
12:46 PM

Since i was very young the ONE thing i always had on my mind was how I could try and fix things, how i could change the enviornmental laws and bring in a new form of government that would actually enforce these laws, and criminaly prosecute all the companies that are destroying our planet….I love the Earth deeply and I have been sidetracked from my dreams for 20 years by Crohn’s disease,,,also I am surrounded by “BLACK HOLES”…people who are out to take up all your time spinning their negative webs at you with all of their might…it seems they are very difficult to get out of my life.

I am a master musician and have the power to penetrate peoples thoughts and perception of the way the world is going and the way everything will work…I have had this unique power my whole life, it is really very remarkable but I have not had a chance to use it properly because of all of the negativity, disease and lack of financial support as of yet…but I have vowed to make this come into reality AND IT WILL….I am writing this because I just want you to know, in the very slim chance that you will actually read this….that you are one, if not the main reason I am the way I am. You are one of the only bright lights in this world fighting for our Mother, and I am so very proud of you and all you have done for our people, and I Love you for this. Please find a way to live forever…hahahaha Your Brother….Chirs Bociek

Mar 30, 2013
11:25 AM

It’s time to stop calling activities that make a few very wealthy while impoverishing everyone else through environmental damage and resource squandering “economic development”.

Regulatory capture by large corporations makes their ceo’s and major investors superpowers while impoverishing the rest of us. This was true in the case of the US financial crisis and it’s true in the global environmental crisis as well.

Mar 30, 2013
9:58 AM

This article touches on many of the points made in an April 2013 Walrus magazine essay entitled “Mortal Hazard”, subtitled “Why catastrophic events like the sub-prime mortgage crisis and climate change are inevitable”. Author Bryne Purchase aptly states, “The problem, deeply embedded in the architecture of our decision making, is that in the pursuit of economic growth we privatize reward and socialize downside risk.” In other words private enterprise reaps all the financial benefits of their exploitation of our resources (natural and financial) and leaves risk for the governments of the day to handle and pick up the pieces.

Our political system does not reward long-term vision. Voters are looking for policy that benefits them next year not policy that benefits their grandchildren 50 years from now. How do we change that mindset?

Mar 30, 2013
8:43 AM

We have to pay attention to the environment and those who would ruin it to their detriment…we must leave a decent world to those who follow us.

Mar 29, 2013
8:59 AM

Thank you to David for chiming in on the issue of Canada’s “resource curse,” which has lit up the Canadian media. The Globe

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