Some politicians believe protecting a sunset industry’s interests is more important than looking out for the citizens who elected them. In Australia, the coal industry holds sway over government policy. In Canada, bitumen and fracked gas rule. In the US, it’s all of the above. Fortunately, many people, especially youth, are heeding the rational voices of those who acknowledge the tremendous opportunities in cleaner energy and economic diversification.
Politicians often justify their undying support for the fossil fuel industry by claiming they’re looking out for jobs and the economy—but those claims don’t hold up.
Despite assertions of some political representatives in Australia and the US, coal doesn’t have a bright future and “clean coal” doesn’t exist. In Canada, pipeline opponents, Indigenous communities and environmental groups aren’t putting bitumen jobs at risk; automation, market forces and change in the face of the climate crisis are behind the declines.
Suncor Energy recently switched to automated haulage systems at its North Steepbank bitumen mine and expects to increase to 150 driverless haul trucks in its oilsands operations over the next five years—affecting hundreds of jobs. Other companies are following suit. Industry is also switching to automated technologies like drones for work ranging from surveying to pipeline inspections. In 2017, Kieron McFadyen, then Cenovus Energy’s executive vice-president, told investors that his company’s long-term vision was to “de-man oilsands” operations.
Market forces are also having a huge impact on fossil fuel jobs and economic prospects, especially for highly polluting coal and dirty, hard-to-extract oil, such as oilsands bitumen. The bitumen market has been hit from several angles. A global oil glut, fuelled partly by a US oil fracking boom, has driven prices down, especially for inferior products like bitumen.
Calculations of “energy return on energy invested”—the amount of energy output over the amount required to produce it—shows one reason for bitumen’s lower price compared to conventional oil. The latter historically delivered 30 units or more for each unit invested, although that’s declining as easily accessed sources become depleted. Recent research shows wind energy can also reach this level, while solar is closer to 9:1 or higher. Oilsands bitumen is 5:1 or lower, because large amounts of energy are required to extract, process and refine it, which makes it costly, inefficient and much more emissions-intensive than conventional oil.
Transporting bitumen through pipelines is also expensive, as every 10 barrels of bitumen must be diluted with three barrels of condensate, which costs more than light crude. Costs and inefficiency make oilsands products less desirable on world markets.
Climate change poses the biggest threat to the future of energy sources like bitumen and coal. Under the Paris Agreement, all countries committed to reduce emissions to try to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2 C over pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 C. We’re already near 1 C! That means we can’t burn much of the oil, coal and gas still in the ground. Clean energy technologies are advancing rapidly, fossil fuels divestment is increasing and people are finding ways to reduce the use of these polluting energy sources.
But instead of a rational debate about how to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy with minimal disruption to workers and society, media and short-sighted politicians inundate us with logical fallacies and absurd conspiracy theories about who’s funding the people and organizations that want a prosperous future with clean air, water and soil and a stable climate.
True concern for workers means helping them find new ways to employ their skills, including offering retraining and incentives for jobs in the growing clean energy sector—a process Canada’s government recently started with its Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities. All political parties should find ways to reform employment policies to reduce waste, inequity and rampant consumerism, including improved work-life balance with shorter workweeks.
Decision-makers who care about the people they represent and understand science, social trends and technological potential know that a low-carbon future offers better health, livability and economic resilience. The fossil fuel industry is still the most profitable (and among the most destructive) in human history, but those days are coming to an end. True leaders understand this.